24 May 2012

Justice in the Family: Choice vs. Fairness

Stephen Kershnar
Justice in the Family
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 15, 2012

            Recently a furor developed when Hilary Rosen, Democratic strategist and close ally to Obama (35 visits to the White House), stated that Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, never worked. Specifically, she said, “His wife has actually never worked a day in her life.” Rosen was trying to get across the notion that Ann Romney (mother of five) never dealt with the types of issues that the majority of women in the U.S. face today, such as how to feed her their kids, get them to school, and so on.
Let us assume that Rosen was wrong about what “work” means and ask whether justice or morality has anything to say about how duties in a marriage should be divided. For example, we might ask how much childcare, cooking, and vacuuming each spouse should do. We also might ask whether there is a number of times that one spouse (for example, wife) should be willing to have sex with the other (for example, husband) when the two have different preferences.  

In the U.S., work is equally distributed when it comes to couples with children under 18. CBS News, using a 2010 Bureau of Labor study, reports that women with full-time jobs and kids under the age of 6 total an average of 56 hours of combined housework and paid work. Men average 57 hours. Similarly, Ruth Davis Konigsberg writing in Time Magazine, and using the same study, reports that for those who had children under the age of 18, women employed full time did just 20 minutes more of combined paid and unpaid work than men did. The distribution was different with women doing more housework and men doing more at the office.

Surprisingly, Konigsberg, using data from the Families and Work Institute, further reports that men have a harder time managing the responsibilities of work and family than do women (60% of men report having a hard time doing so versus 47% of women). On the other hand, a study by University of Southern California psychologist Darby Saxbe and others writing in Journal of Family Psychology found that more men than women engaged in leisure activity after work (19% to 11%) and men spent more time on leisure than housework.

There are two opposing philosophical positions on the relation between justice (or fairness) and domestic work (for example, housework and childcare). One theory holds that justice doesn’t apply to the family and that whatever both spouses agree to is just. This might rest on the notion that justice is a matter of what rights people have and what rights they have depends on what they’ve agreed to. This is what makes it fair for some couples to have a traditional marriage (the husband works outside the home and the wife does the housework and childcare) and others to have an egalitarian one (both spouses work outside the home and do the same amount of housework).

Alternatively, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel of University argues that justice doesn’t apply to the family because families are based on love and affection rather than assignments of rights and duties. On this view, applying the logic of markets and the legal system to marriage would worsen the family by introducing an alien value system. For example, if mothers were to charge for each hug they give their children, this would worsen family life.
The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t align with our thoughts. Many spouses feel that it is unfair for one person (for example, the wife) to do most of the household chores even when if this is what they initially agreed to do. For example, if the wife is cooking and cleaning all Sunday, while her husband drinks beer and watches football, there is bound to be resentment.

Also, it is odd to think that the distribution of benefits and burdens outside the home should be just, fair, or equal, but that these same considerations don’t apply just because spouses enter the home or love each other. We don’t think this about demands for respect or against violence and so it seems that other moral demands should apply in the home. For example, if we think that some people (for example, miners and daycare workers) get paid too little relative to corporate executives given how hard the former work or what they contribute, then a similar thing should be true when one spouse does the lion’s share of domestic work.  

A second theory holds that justice and fairness apply to the family. Proponents of egalitarian marriage hold that even if both the husband and wife agree to an unequal distribution of domestic duties, such an arrangement is unfair and disrespectful toward the spouse who carries the load (usually, women). Feminists such as the late Stanford philosopher Susan Moller Okin often promote this view. They argue that even if she agreed to it, a wife who sacrifices her career and leisure time to act as a maid for her husband and nanny for her children profoundly disrespects her own abilities and emotions. Similarly, a husband who asks this of her similarly disrespects her.  

One problem with this view is that the notion of an equal marriage is hard to fill out. It is unclear whether the feminists who argue for this think that equality should be filled out in terms of the husband and wife being equally happy, equally well-paid, equally respected, or equal in some other way. The other way might involve equal amounts of contribution, hard work, or sacrifice. Without some theory explaining how equality in a marriage should be filled out, this view is not much more than a bumper sticker. To see the problem, consider little an egalitarian-marriage proponent would have to say about the happy middle ground when a husband wants to more sex and his wife less.    

A second problem is that it is implausible that there is one type of equality that a couple should aim for, regardless of what type of equality they want or whether they want equality at all. Even if there were one type of equality couples should aim for, it is unclear why it is important in comparison to other considerations, such as the family’s aggregate happiness. This takes both parents and children into consideration. That is, it is irrational to try to make spouses equally happy rather than trying to make the overall family as happy as possible.

A third problem is that if one spouse finds herself much happier married to one person than to others or to being unmarried, then it is irrational to care about how her happiness is relative to her spouse. Equality is valuable when it improves one’s life; it is not valuable in itself. This type of fanatical commitment to equality explains why feminists are now marginalized.  

In the end, the more plausible view is that justice and fairness depend on that to which a married couple agreed. The agreement might focus on equality, maximizing the family’s overall happiness, or some other goal (perhaps religious or altruistic). There is no one pattern a marriage must satisfy. The focus on equality is too vague to be useful and, in any case, nothing more than a personal preference. 

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