Toward a Humanist Justice

by Harry on June 22, 2009

Toward a Humanist Justice, a collection of critical essays on the work of Susan Moller Okin edited by my friends Debra Satz and Rob Reich, has just been published. The essays were first presented at a conference in honour of Okin organized at Stanford shortly after her death (which we reported here), and the book includes essays by Alison Jaggar, Joshua Cohen, Cass Sunstein, Mary Lyndon Shanley, the late Iris Young, David Miller, and others. One of the big problems with collections like this, focused on a single person’s work and deriving from a conference, is that they can be very disparate. Unlike a volume conceived around a single theme or problem, it is very hard to discipline contributors, and the contributors themselves are invited to the conference for a variety of reasons which include deep personal connections to the subject of the conference, a consideration which is sometimes, and not wrongly, given more weight than consistent engagement with the themes of that person’s work. The difficulty arises when it comes to the volume, and the editors don’t dare to dis-include those papers which don’t really belong in a unitary collection (I hereby request any editors who ever feel awkwardness about dis-inviting me in such a situation – which I can envisage arising – to be frank with me without any fear of me being even mildly irritated). So it really is a delight to find no such problem with the volume – not only are the essays all on central themes in Okin’s work, but they are well written (or well edited, you can never be sure) and all that I have read are very good indeed.

It’s always hard to know whether a collection like this will be widely read. Even a good volume, which this one certainly is, is really targeted to scholars. But in this case, because almost all the essays direct themselves to arguments and themes expressed in just two accessible books (Justice, Gender, And The Family and Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?), and because Okin’s work was so closely tied to important themes in mainstream political philosophy, the volume could very sensibly be used in an upper division undergraduate course in Political Philosophy or Feminism.

As I say, all the essays I’ve read are very good and break new ground without abdicating the task of engaging with central themes in her work. I wanted to say a couple of words about two of them that I’ve found particularly useful. The first is Mary Shanley’s essay “No more relevance than one’s eye color”, which takes the various of Okin’s formulations of what genderlessness would consist in, and subjects them to close scrutiny, as well as looking at the sketches of proposals that Okin makes to achieve genderlessness. The other is Joshua Cohen’s “A Matter of Demolition”. Cohen’s review of Justice, Gender and the Family was one of those reviews that really is a fully developed research paper, and took her to task for several things, including what he saw as her being too quick in her dismissal of libertarianism, and her failure to interrogate adequately what Sandel means by saying that the family is “beyond justice”. He revisits these issues, and another dispute between them which concerned the extent of her embrace of the public private distinction (in the review he said she embraced it, whereas she disputed the extent of her embrace). The essay is really wonderful for two things. One is the continuing of the conversation, in which he gives some ground to Okin, but shows that even if she is wrong about some of the specifics, her method of asking about a theory “well, what if it tried to take gender and family life seriously” was illuminating and fruitful. The other is that the paper is, to me at least, quite moving. He opens with an unusually candid admission that he and Okin’s last interactions were not good ones, subtly implying that there was blame for this on both sides, and expressing unmawkish regret at this – a good warning to readers that life is too short to hope that fences will magically be mended sometime in the future — following by an intellectually honest and sharp tribute to the person with whom he cannot renew his friendship.

Anyway, highly recommended.



R 06.22.09 at 6:11 pm

I don’t really keep up with the political theory world, so the sad news of Susan Okin’s death hits me 5 years late… Being in her section, as a freshman taking political theory somewhat over my head, was one of the high points of college.


Jacqueline Perry 06.23.09 at 9:29 am

Okin was more of a humanitarian although the world saw her as a feminist. She was able to do an abundance for us, and I guess if you think about it I’d rather die young and have done a lot rather than live forever and not have any significant contributions to society.


ingrid robeyns 06.24.09 at 9:53 am

Thanks for alerting us to this, Harry. I think it is wonderful that the work of Okin is being further examined, especially given all the charicatures I have read of her work in some strands of feminist theory. I ordered my copy a week or two ago and can’t wait for it to arrive. Can someone with the right connections please suggest to OUP to open a warehouse in Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Utrecht?

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