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  • Vidhi Sharma

Exploring Fundamentals of Justice within the Family

The institution of family is one of the most primitive elements in society. Oftentimes, it is regarded as the foundation of all interpersonal relations within a community. Family is the conventional basis of a multiplicity of functions ranging from procreative, economic to socialising and cultural. The institution, having evolved (or not so much) over time, still remains the epicentre of various confrontations and deliberations in contemporary society.

Justice, more specifically Social Justice, has been identified by John Rawls as the first characteristic of all social institutions. As the father of distributive justice and justice theory, Rawls' assertion for the primacy of justice stands viable and completely in synergy with the legitimate concerns of affirming justice even in the context of a family, which unequivocally happens to be at the helm of all social institutions. However, the 'personal' connotation allocated to a family gives way to many traditionalist ideologues who staunchly argue against the confluence of the two.

While it remains unknown as to who initiated an inquiry into the ideals of justice within a family, many of the renowned political thinkers have shared their two cents on the subject in their works. Right from Rousseau and Hume to John Rawls and J S Mill, all have presented their arguments in favour of or against the establishment of justice norms within the family.

As far as a modern day outlook is concerned, whilst keeping the conventions in mind, we realise how there are substantial inequalities persisting within a family setup, the burden of which has typically fallen over the women, who have been bearing the brunt of all unpaid and undue contributions within the family. These contributions have been fairly social in nature and thus remain unquantified in the face of a generally economic input by the husband. The feminist movement has tried to challenge this gender-structured image of a family, opposing the normative gender roles set by the society and asking people to 'rethink the family' today.

Susan Moller Okin in her stellar work Justice, Gender and the Family has enumerated arguments and opinions of various traditional as well as contemporary political thinkers who have come to evaluate Justice in the Family. She mentions how the 18th century empiricist, David Hume propagated that justice doesn't and shouldn't apply to family life by arguing that a family is based on "enlarged affections", in which every man "feels no more concern for his own interest than for that of his fellows," rendering justice irrelevant and unnecessary. This argument, opined on similar lines as Rousseau's, is based on the delusional and fallible assumption that every family is as ideal as Hume views them. Even as there might be some truth to it, it in no way guarantees that every family behaves in a similar fashion. In fact, families, amidst their looming objectivity are clearly subjective when looked at from a more focused lens.

In opposition to Hume, Rawls, who claims justice to be the primary moral virtue, has a much more sensible argument to present, just by asserting that justice need not be the noblest or the highest virtue in a family, but in all respects, it happens to be most fundamental and essential. Okin quotes Rawls' A Theory of Justice: "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust."

Similarly, a family cannot be exempted from practising justice just because it holds emotional complexities. They must not become barriers to individualism. If anything, the propounded emotionality and sentimental value has taken a form of toxicity in modern day relationships.

One of the chapters in Okin's book, namely, The Family: Beyond Justice? also mentions Michael Sandel and Allan Bloom, two relatively modern political philosophers from America who have opposed Rawls in their books, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice and The Closing of the American Mind respectively. Sandel claims that the family is "beyond justice" in the sense of being too elevated for it. Bloom on the other hand acknowledges the division of labour within a family as unjust but deems it necessary and in accordance with the laws of nature. Both are rigid and conservative in their arguments since they have resorted to intermingling nature and biological behaviours as reasons enough for the lack of justice. They are operating on the conventions laid for men and women at the beginning of it all, citing nature and natural roles as reasonable whilst being ignorant of the fact that we have come a long way since then. Just because women can procreate, that doesn't mean that they should be limited to being means of procreation without any bodily autonomy or individual identity to themselves. Just because they are responsible for childbearing, that doesn't mean that childrearing should only be their responsibility too. Sandel and Bloom being widely read and praised probably also explains the infamous overturn of Roe v. Wade in America, leaving no room for abortion rights in more than half of the country.

Okin also brings to the forefront the concept of "supererogation" in a family. Supererogation refers to the act of performing more than is required by duty, obligation, or need. Many thinkers argue that a family sustains through an act of consistent supererogation at the hands of its makers; that within a family biosphere, people are required to do more and give more. This necessitates a thought that justice in this way probably becomes conflicting, and can be subdued to some extent. However, what is very important is to realise how this supererogation also implicitly befalls the women in the family. It is often seen that the women of the family do away with their jobs, or sacrifice their individual identities to become the household saviours without even getting any due recognition for the same. For the greater good of the family, the women are nurtured from their very childhood to have the sacrificial capacity, wherein this "principle of sacrifice" gets highly glorified but greatly dismissed on an everyday basis, making way for grave systemic injustices that women have to go through while fitting into the roles of wifes and mothers.

An exponent of utilitarianism, even John Stuart Mill has put it in this manner: "The two are called 'one person in law', for the purpose of inferring that whatever is hers is his, but the parallel inference is never drawn that whatever is his is hers." This is contradictory to the idealised vision of Rousseau who time and again dictated the subordination of women to men's judgements. Okin unfailingly notes how "Rousseau himself sent all his children off to foundling homes, against his wife's will," neglecting in his own life the fictional idealism he envisioned.

Today, the unjust family is not natural or socially necessary. Even as traditional thinkers were vehement defenders of patriarchy, the modern ones ought to do better. Okin has a compelling point to make when she quotes: "There is surely nothing in our natures that requires men not to be equal participants in the rearing of their children… Our laws do not allow kleptomaniacs to shoplift, or those with a predilection for rape to rape. Why, then, should we allow fathers who refuse to share in the care of their children to abdicate their responsibilities?" It is true that the contract of marriage assumes legal equality while actual equality fails to persist in most families today. No amount of erratic "biological behavioural tendencies" or supererogation can counterweight the fact that familial justice needs to be served in theory and practice. As William Allen White has remarked,"Peace without justice is tyranny," and so it's time to acknowledge that unvoiced tyranny in households too, for love can coexist with justice, but if justice fails to pass the threshold, it will be too late for love.


  • Okin, Susan Moller. Justice, Gender, and the Family. New York: Basic Books, 1989.

  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

  • Sandel, Michael J. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press, 1982.

  • Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

  • Mill, John S. On Liberty. London: John W. Parker and Son, West Strand, 1859.

  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Rousseau on Women, Love, and Family. Dartmouth College Press, 2009.

  • Hume, David, and L A. Selby-Bigge. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896.

By Vidhi Sharma

1 Comment

Oct 16, 2022

In recent years, there are more divorces in India. What is the reason? Is it Economic Independence? Is it MNC work culture? Nuclear or unit family system? Is it excessive consumerism? Is it growing Individuality? Divorces are more in "ELITE" society or say among the educated and well to do families?

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