Coercion, the basic structure, and the family

Journal of Social Philosophy 40 (1):37-54 (2009)
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Abstract

In this article I revise and defend a core feature of political liberalism, namely, the idea that principles of political justice should be limited in their scope of application to what John Rawls calls the ‘basic structure of society.’ I refer to this feature as the ‘basic structure restriction’ of political liberalism. According to my account of the basic structure restriction, the basic structure includes all and only those institutions that have a profound effect on the lives of all citizens, and thus those institutions that citizens would want to organize as parts of a fair system of social cooperation. Moreover, maintaining the basic structure as a fair system of social cooperation vis-à-vis all citizens requires the exercise of coercive political power. This account of the basic structure, which I call the ‘legitimacy of coercion account,’ shows that limiting the basic structure to those institutions that are maintained by legally coercive means is not arbitrary, contrary to the claims of critics like G. A. Cohen. Furthermore, by recognizing explicitly that there exist certain institutions – and, in particular, the family – that ought to be regulated partially by coercively maintained principles, my formulation of the basic structure provides a more satisfactory account of the way in which principles of justice should apply to the family than does Rawls’s most considered account. Finally, I explain how my account of the basic structure can incorporate many of S. M. Okin’s proposed policies for promoting gender equality in society.

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Blain Neufeld
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

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