Liberalism Essay

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There is a historical and ongoing feminist critique of liberalism on a variety of grounds. It would appear that feminists have been largely justified in their distrust of its ‘false universalisms’, its masculinist exclusions, its apparent disregard for social justice, and for promoting an equality that is merely formal rather than substantive. Martha Nussbaum insists on differentiating the diverse historical strands within the Western tradition of liberalism. The idea of ‘negative liberty’, prevalent in much Western liberalism and reinscribed at the heart of neo-liberalism, suggests that rights are primarily protections against state interference. Neoliberalism is premised on the freedom of contract as the most basic value. Anne Phillips argues, if freedom implies a choice of options, the ability to choose itself depends on substantive conditions, which in turn require cultivation. These include, at a minimum, having the political and civil freedoms that enable one to voice an objection, and the educational and employment opportunities that make ‘exit’ a genuine option. Such criticisms of liberal rights have been shared by many feminist theorists. However, there is another strand within liberalism, associated with John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hill Green, that insists on an active role for the state in creating the material and institutional prerequisites of positive freedom. This strand can arguably best support human rights agendas by generating positive obligations for state action to support human well-being and develop individual and group capacities. Nussbaum considers this ‘the only sort of liberalism worth defending’. At the same time she emphasizes that this implies far more than the standard critique of the thin idea of ... ... middle of paper ... ...-being, for example that they all have access to equal capabilities to achieve valued functionings, or equal resources (broadly defined). In each case, to the extent that women need different resources to achieve equal freedom and success (such as special medical provisions, pregnancy leave, child-care support, special protections against gender-specific dangers, and so on), then liberal feminism can be understood to support such measures. So some feminists have claimed that liberal (egalitarian) theories of justice can be amended to take into account likely differences in personal responsibilities in society between men and women, for example by building into the procedure for deriving principles of justice (Rawls’s original position for instance) a recognition of that likelihood (Okin 1989, Cornell 1998). Others disagree (Young 1990a, Jaggar 1983: 39–50, 185–206).

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