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Gender justice: capabilities or primary goods?
Paper for the 2005 ECPR Joint Sessions, Workshop on Equality of Opportunity
Very first draft, not for citation or distribution without permission
Ingrid Robeyns
University of Amsterdam, Netherlands,
Department of Political Science
i.robeyns < at >
1. Introduction
Over the last twenty-five years, Amartya Sen has repeatedly criticised John Rawls’s
proposal to assess individual well-being for the purpose of social justice based on a
person’s bundle of social primary goods. Sen has argued that social primary goods do
not sufficiently account for interindividual differences in the ability to convert these
social primary goods into well-being. Instead, Sen argues, social justice should be
assessed in the space of capabilities, that is, a person’s substantive opportunities to
valuable doings and beings.
There is no consensus in the literature on whether we should indeed make
interpersonal comparisons in the space of capabilities, rather than social primary
goods. Eva Kittay, in an analysis of how Rawls’s theory deals with dependents and
care givers, argued that Rawls’s account of social primary goods has no place for
issues of care needs and care giving, and briefly suggested that a capability-like
metric might be more promising.1 Joshua Cohen argued that, while Sen’s critique is
persuasive for the case of the disabled and the extreme destitute, primary goods would
be a better currency to use for all other cases of distributive justice, because the
capability approach poses severe informational requirements.2 More recently Thomas
Pogge argued in defence of primary goods as the metric for justice, and pointed at
some deficiencies in the capability metric that would not be sufficiently
Eva Kittay, Love’s Labor. Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency, New York: Routledge,
chapter 4 and footnote 130.
Joshua Cohen, “Book review of Inequality Reexamined by Amartya Sen”, The Journal of Philosophy,
1995, 275-288.
acknowledged.3 More recent papers further analysed this debate, and found that
capabilities and social primary goods both have strengths and weaknesses.4 In short, it
remains unclear which of the two metrics is most suited for purposes of social justice.
This paper will be part of an edited book in which the authors try to take this debate
forward by not only adding some arguments at a high level of generality and
abstraction, but also to ‘test’ it on some case studies to gain further insights. If the
difference between social primary goods and capabilities is studied in detail for some
specific case studies, we might be able to revisit the differences between the two
theories more fruitfully in more general terms.5 The case study of this paper is gender
inequality and gender justice. Gender provides an interesting case of interindividual
diversity, as cultural and economic factors are strongly intertwined. Moreover, gender
inequalities in opportunities are intrinsically linked with inequalities between carer
givers and non-care givers, which creates some additional complexities.
2. Gender and gender inequalities
Before embarking on the analysis of how well capabilities and social primary goods
deal with issues of gender, we need to outline what we understand under gender and
questions of gender justice. There is a vast literature on this topic, and I will only be
able to highlight some of the main issues here.
Sally Haslanger’s definition of gender provides a good starting point to sketch a brief
account of gender.6 Haslanger defines gender in terms of the social positions that men
and women occupy. A person belongs to a gender because she is thought to have
certain bodily features that reveal her reproductive capacities. These bodily features
function as markers for evaluating individuals as either men or women, and for
justifying their respective social positions. Gender is thus a social category, with two
modes, man and woman. Observations or imaginations of sexual characteristics serve
as markers to classify individuals in different social positions. This abstract definition
Thomas Pogge, 2002. “Can the Capability Approach be justified?” Philosophical Topics 30(2), pp.
Harry Brighouse. 2004. “Primary Goods, Capabilities, and the Problem of the Public Criterion of
Justice”; Fabienne Peter. 2004. “Political Capability: Deliberative Democracy, Legitimacy and
Equality”; and Ingrid Robeyns, 2004. “Justice As Fairness and the Capability Approach”. All presented
at the Annual Meetings of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, September 5-7;
For another such case study, see Ingrid Robeyns. 2005. “Assessing Global Poverty and Inequality:
Income, Resources, and Capabilities”, Metaphilosophy, 23 (1-2), pp. 30-49.
Sally Haslanger, 2000. ‘Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?’,
NOÛS, 34/1: 31-55.
can be fleshed out in many ways. One way to do so is by using four key concepts:
norms, stereotypes, identity and social institutions.
Norms can be legal, social or moral, but all have in common that a person violating a
norm will be sanctioned, either by a legal punishment, or by the contempt and disgust
that will trigger shame in the violator.7 Many norms are gendered, that is, they apply
to women and men in different ways. Most laws have been made gender-neutral over
the past decades, but jurisprudence is still gendered.8 Social and moral norms are
probably more important for our understanding of how norms impact on gender
inequalities. These gender norms impose codes of masculinity and femininity and
notions of what the appropriate and ‘normal’ behaviour for a man or a woman are. For
example, it is less socially accepted that mothers leave their children in the care of
another person when going on a trip away from home than for fathers. The more a
mother’s friends and colleagues reveal that they do not consider it ‘normal’ that she
leaves her children in someone else’s care, the more guilty the mother will feel.
Gender norms affect the distribution of wealth and power, because the norms for
success in positions of authority collide with norms of femininity. These conflicting
norms put women in a no-win situation: either they adhere to the social norms
regulating business and the professions, but then they are seen as too aggressive and
too ‘masculine’, or they conform to the social norms which stipulate how a woman
should behave, but then they are seen as too passive, sweet, and insufficiently
ambitious to be able to succeed in the hard ‘male’ world.9
Many social norms create and reinforce gender inequalities. Lee Badgett and Nancy
Folbre have argued that the norm that places the responsibility of caring for children
and the elderly on women reinforces their financial dependence and socio-economic
vulnerability.10 As such, gender norms create and reinforce power imbalances
between the two genders. The femininity norms make it much harder for women than
for men to gain power. As Bourdieu put it, “access to power of any kind places
women in a ‘double bind’: if they behave like men, they risk losing the obligatory
Jon Elster (1999). ‘Shame and Social Norms’, in his Alchemies of the Mind. Rationality and the
Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 145-164.
Helena Kennedy, Eve was Framed. Women and British Justice, London: Vintage books.
This was very much at stake in the case of Ann Hopkins, as successful American woman denied
partnership in a legal firm; see Michael Kimmel, (2000). The Gendered Society. New York: Oxford
University Press, p. 187; and Virgina Valian, (1998). Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women.
MIT-press., p. 295.
Lee Badgett and Nancy Folbre, (1999). ‘Assigning Care: Gender Norms and Economic Outcomes’,
International Labour Review, 138/3, pp. 311-326.
attributes of ‘femininity’ and call into question the natural right of men to the
positions of power; if they behave like women, they appear incapable and unfit for the
job”.11 Thus, while both men and women are socially punished if they violate their
respective gender norms, conforming to these norms leads to gendered behaviour that
puts women in a structurally weaker position than men.
In addition to gender norms, men and women are also subjected to gender stereotypes.
There is by now a large body of empirical research in social, cognitive and
development psychology to help explain why women achieve less than men in
professions, when there is no indication of overt discrimination. In such cases, gender
stereotypes play a central role in shaping women’s and men’s professional
achievements.12 Stereotypes are cognitive devices that operate at the non-conscious
level, and help us to make sense of the staggering amount of information that our
brain constantly has to process. They are hypotheses about sex differences, which
affect our expectations of men and women and our evaluations of their work,
qualities, and abilities. These expectations and evaluations will affect both
individuals’ actual performance, as well as the aspirations they hold. They are shared
by members of a society, and are formed as part of socialisation processes. Both men
and women form expectations and judge other people with the same gender schemes.
According to Valian, in white, western middle class society male stereotypes include
“being capable of independent, autonomous action (agentic, in short), assertive,
instrumental, and task-oriented. Men act.” For women, the stereotypes focuses on
“being nurturant, expressive, communal, and concerned about others”13 According to
Valian, stereotypes are not wholly inaccurate, but they overgeneralise and
oversimplify, and ignore that the sexes are more alike than that they are different. The
main problem therefore is that people are not only judged based on their own
performance and abilities, but in part on oversimplified stereotypes attributed to their
gender. One effect of these stereotypes is that behaviour that is associated with being
a good professional is typically valued negatively for women and positively for men.
For instance, taking on the role of a leader is likely to be praised if it is adapted by a
man, but is often valued negatively when adapted by a woman. As a consequence, our
Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001, pp. 67-68.
Valian calls these cognitive gender schemes ‘gender schemes’, but I prefer the more commonly used
term ‘stereotype’.
Valian, Ibid., p. 13.
evaluations lead to different treatment of men and women in the labour market. And
while each of these biases may be small, they accumulate and result in significant
gender inequalities in pay, promotion, power, and so forth.
It is not difficult to see how gender norms and stereotypes affect a person’s notion of
herself, or her personal identity. Adopting an identity that conforms with gender
norms will avoid the pain of feeling ashamed. One could opt for a gender-nonconformist identity, but this will come at the price of disapproval by members of
mainstream society, and the risk of lower levels of material well-being. Gender
stereotypes also have far-reaching effects on our conceptions of ourselves.14 Due to
gender stereotypes everyone has different expectations of men and women. The
expectations of others will influence our behaviour and mould our preferences. For
example, in a setting in which neither men nor women are experts, men are more
likely to behave as if they are the experts and women as if they are the non-experts.15
Considering oneself an expert and claiming social power thus becomes part of the
masculine identity through the working of the gender stereotypes. These stereotypes
are to some extent self-fulfilling prophecies, because they affect individuals’
behaviour and beliefs, and they reify the gender-hypotheses that make up the
stereotype. In addition children are through socialisation moulded in the existing
social patterns, thereby forming their gender identity. Individuals might raise their
children in certain ways or decide to lead a gender-non-conformistic life, but if only a
few people make this decision, it will not change social norms or societal structures
and institutions.
Finally, social institutions are also ‘gendered’ in the sense that they tend to take
gender differences which are created by gender inequalities as ‘natural’, and use these
differences as a justification for those inequalities. These institutions include our
educational system, the media, families, labour market, workplaces, and labour
unions. There is a vast literature in the social sciences showing how structures of
social institutions themselves produce and sustain existing gender inequalities. For
example, most workplaces in the UK do not have child care facilities, nor do
governments provide them. But the job requirements for most full-time jobs implicitly
assume that the worker is free of caring responsibilities. This makes it very difficult
Valian, 1998: 145-166
Valian 1998: 150.
for both parents to have a full time job. In the above formulation, this situation sounds
gender neutral, and seems to indicate more a problem that parents face, instead of it
being a gender issue. But this is not the case, due to the gender norm that stipulates
that children should be taken care of by their mothers, as they are assumed to be far
better at nurturing babies and caring for children than fathers. Moreover, despite
scientific evidence to the contrary, it is widely believed that children are harmed if
they are left in day care, and that it is mainly mothers’ responsibility to care for the
children. As the organisation of the workplace makes it very hard for parents to have
an egalitarian arrangement, the design of this social institution will contribute to
gender inequalities (in income, labour market participation, leadership positions, and
so forth), thereby relying upon, and reinforcing, gender norms.
Other social institutions are equally gendered. For example, gendered classrooms
reinforce gender stereotypes, both in the differential way that teachers respond to boys
versus girls, and also in the gender-stereotypical messages that many textbooks hide.
The media also contributes to spreading gender norms, thereby constructing idealised
notions of masculinity and femininity. Similarly, families are gendered institutions, as
parents teach children what the ‘appropriate’ behaviour for boys and girls is, and as
most families live according to conventional gender norms.
In conclusion, gender is a complex multi-layered phenomenon. For analytical
purposes it is useful to have an array of analytical tools, but in real life the workings
of gender norms, stereotypes, institutions and identity constantly interact. All of them
steer men and women into different social positions. The question that will be
addressed in this paper, is whether social primary goods and capability are capable of
accounting for the injustices created by gender norms, stereotypes, institutions and
identity formation. Let us first turn to a brief description of Rawlsian primary goods,
and then ask how well they can account for issues of gender injustice.
3. Justice as fairness and social primary goods
Justice as fairness—Rawls’s theory of justice—imagines people before a society is
formed.16 Society is viewed as a fair system of cooperation between free and equal
persons. The theory asks which political principles individuals would unanimously
agree to respect in the society that follows the state of nature. The individuals in this
pre-societal state of nature—what Rawls calls the original position—are
representative parties, that is, hypothetical persons who represent the actual people
who will live in the society for which they are deciding on the principles of justice.
Rawls further introduces the veil of ignorance, a theoretical device that imposes on
the parties in the original position a lack of information about which place they will
take in the society (i.e. their sex, race, class, or information regarding their natural
abilities like intelligence or strength)—but general facts about the society, its
economy and human psychology are assumed to be known. The parties in the original
position also don’t know their conceptions of the good. As the parties in the original
position have no information about their place in society, circumstances or life plans,
the agreement that they will reach in the original position regarding the principles of
justice will be fair to everyone.17
The parties in the original position who decide on the principles of justice are
assumed to mutually benefit from social cooperation, and to posses certain cognitive
abilities that allow them to take part in the decision. In the original position, the
parties only decide on the principles of justice, and not on the concrete institutional
design and policies. The representative parties will choose from a list of possible
principles of justice those principles that it is rational for them to choose given the
information that they have and have not. Rawls argues that the parties will choose the
following two principles:18
1. Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of
equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of
liberties for all.
For both Sen and Rawls, I will look at their most recent writings to include any changes in their
thinking that has occurred over the course of their writings. This implies that I will mainly refer to
Rawls’s Theory of Justice. Revised edition, 1999, rather than the original one which was published in
1971. While this book was not published in English before 1999, the revision is effectively written in
1975, and all translations of Theory from 1975 onwards were based on the revised text.
Theory, rev. ed., p. 104.
Restatement, pp. 42-43; see also ‘Social Unity and Primary Goods’, p. 362 and Theory, rev. ed. p.
2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: [2a] first, they
are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair
equality of opportunity; [2b] and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of
the least advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
The basic liberties are listed as follows: “freedom of thought and liberty of
conscience; political liberties (for example, the right to vote and to participate in
politics) and freedom of association, as well as the rights and liberties specified by the
liberty and integrity (physical and psychological) of the person; and finally, the rights
and liberties covered by the rule of law”. Rawls stressed repeatedly that the two
principles have to be seen as working in a tandem. The first principle, the principle of
equal basic liberties, has priority over the second principle; in addition, (2a), the
principle of fair equality of opportunity, has priority over the difference principle (2b).
Applying the difference principle requires interpersonal comparisons of some notion
of advantage. Rawls holds that a person’s advantage should be specified by social
primary goods, which are all-purpose means that every person is presumed to want, as
they are useful “for a sufficiently wide range of ends”.19 Because the parties in the
original position do not know which notion of the good life they will endorse, nor
their natural abilities, they choose for general all-purpose means.20 Rawls has stressed
that it is not actual persons who are assumed to want those primary goods, but rather
persons in their capacity as citizens, as conceptualised by the political conception of
the person in justice as fairness.21
The social primary goods can be classified in five groups:22
(a). the basic rights and liberties;
(b). freedom of movement and choice of occupation;
(c). powers and prerogatives of offices and positions of authority and
(d). income and wealth;
(e). the social bases of self-respect.
Due to the priority of the first principle over the second, and the principle of fair
equality of opportunity (2a) over the difference principle (2b), the first two groups of
“Social Unity and Primary Goods”, p. 367.
Ibid, p. 361; Theory, rev. ed., p. 54.
“Social Unity and Primary Goods” pp. 365-368, Restatement, pp. xvi, 58
“Social Unity and Primary Goods” p. 362; Restatement, pp. 58-59.
primary goods are effectively equalized among all persons before the difference
principle plays any role. This leaves us with only income and wealth, and the social
basis of self-respect (categories c, d and e) to identify the worst-off person or group in
society. Rawls considers the social bases of self-respect probably the most important
primary good, and argues that the best way to provide the social bases of self-respect
is by treating every citizen as an equal, that is, by giving every citizen the same rights
and liberties.23 Thus, based on Rawls’s assumptions on human psychology, it follows
that if both the first principle of justice and the principle of fair equality of
opportunity are met, then everyone is provided with the same social basis of selfrespect. As a consequence, the difference principle will make interpersonal
comparisons based on estimating the life-time expectations in terms of income and
wealth, and the rights and prerogatives of authority.24
Rawls’s principles of justice apply to the basic structure of society, which he defines
as “the way in which the main political and social institutions of society fit together
into one system of social cooperation, and the way they assign basic rights and duties
and regulate the division of advantages that arise from social cooperation over
time”.25 Because basic structures can differ over time and space, it is not possible to
list all the institutions of the basic structure in general; however, Rawls does mention
some, like the political constitution and economic and social arrangements such as the
legal protection of basic liberties, competitive markets and the family.26
Finally, because Rawls is deeply concerned about the possibility that people with very
different comprehensive moral views on the good life can come to a reasonable
agreement on the principles of political justice, he stresses that the conception of
justice must be public and the information necessary to make a claim of injustice must
be verifiable to all, and preferably easy to collect. According to Rawls, a theory of
social justice needs a public standard of interpersonal comparisons, as otherwise the
obtained principles of justice between citizens with divers views on the good life will
not prove stable.27
Theory, rev. ed., p. 386.
Theory, rev. ed., p. 80.
Restatement, p. 10
Theory, Rev. Ed. , p. 6.
Rawls, “Social Unity and Primary Goods”, pp. 370-371; Thomas Pogge, “Can the Capability
Approach be Justified?”, Philosophical Topics, 22 (2), 2002, § 4.1.
4. Gender inequality and justice as fairness
Rawls’s account of social primary goods, and more broadly his account of justice as
fairness, has been both embraced and criticised by feminist thinkers.28 One of the
strengths of the Rawlsian account for gender issues is the principle of equal liberties,
which would rule out any systematic legal disadvantage of women, such as being
legally minors to their husbands. The social primary goods account also rules out
gender discrimination in the filling and rewards of occupations and positions of
authority. While this is now a widely accepted moral (and legal) principle in western
societies, the empirical evidence suggests it is not respected.29 Rawls’s theory also
implies that justifying distributional and social inequalities by appealing to some
traditions which systematically disadvantage some groups would not be upheld
behind the veil of ignorance.30
However, there are also some tensions and limitations in Rawls’s theory from a
feminist perspective—we will focus on two that are relevant for the comparison with
capabilities as a metric of interpersonal comparison. The first problem lies in the
scope of justice as fairness. Rawls has argued that justice as fairness addresses what
he regards the fundamental question of political philosophy, namely “what principles
of justice are most appropriate to specify the fair terms of cooperation when society is
viewed as a system of cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal
persons, and as normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete
life”.31 Rawls certainly does not want to deny our moral duties towards the people that
fall outside the scope of his theory, but he thinks that we should first work out a
robust and convincing theory of justice for the “normal” cases and only then try to
extend it to the “more extreme cases”, such as the disabled.32 The problem with this
reasoning is that it denies that all humans are at several (and some at all) stages in
their lives vulnerable and in need of care; it thus excludes children, primary care
For an overview, see Martha Nussbaum, “Rawls and Feminism”, in: Samuel Freeman (ed.), The
Cambridge Companion to Rawls, pp. 488-520.
See, for example, Valian, Ibid.; Wennerås, Agnes and Christine Wold (1997). ‘Neopotism and
Sexism in Peer Review’, Nature, 387: 341-343; Goldin, Claudia and Cecila Rouse (2000).
‘Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians’, American
Economic Review, 90/4: 715-741.; Neumark, David, Roy J. Bank and Kelly van Nort (1996). ‘Sex
Discrimination in Restaurant Hiring: An Audit Study’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 111: 915-941.
Okin has shown that an appeal to tradition in the design of social arrangements and judgements of
social justice harms women; see her “Whose Traditions? Which Understandings?” in her Gender,
Justice and the Family, New York: Basic Books, pp. 41-73, and also p. 101.
Rawls, Restatement, p. 176, note 59.
givers (mainly women), the ill, disabled and frail. The neglect of their needs is thus
not so much situated in the conceptualization of the social primary goods, but rather
determined by the limited scope of justice as fairness being based in the social
contract tradition.
The scope of justice as fairness has a major consequence for the place of the family in
justice as fairness. Susan Okin pointed out that there is a tension in justice as fairness,
as the family is part of the basic structure but at the same time the family is simply
assumed to be just.33 In Restatement, Rawls confirms that the family is part of the
basic structure, but adds that because justice as fairness is a political conception of
justice, his principles of justice apply to the institutions that form the basic structure
of society but not to the internal life of the associations that are part of the basic
structure, such as churches or universities. Rawls does not deny that there are
conceptions of justice that apply to the internal relationships between individuals in
such associations (as the family), but that these are not political conceptions. In other
words, this concern falls outside the scope of justice as fairness, being a political
conception of justice. Family members as citizens are equal; but once all family
members are treated as equal citizens, justice within the family is a matter of local
justice, which is beyond the scope of justice as fairness.34 Rawls’s argument that the
distributions of advantage within the family are beyond the scope of his theory of
justice makes it extremely difficult to use it as an account to discuss gender justice, as
so much of the inequality between men and women is either caused, or perpetuated,
by unjust arrangements within the family.
In addition, there is a second problem related to the scope and kind of theory of
justice as fairness that limits its appropriateness to analyse issues of gender justice:
the ideal character of justice as fairness. As Rawls argues, justice as fairness is about
justice for a well-ordered society. This is referred to as ideal or strict compliance
theory, being a theory that assumes that “(nearly) everyone strictly complies with, and
so abides by, the principles of justice.”35 However, Rawls’s definition of ideal theory
is not how it is generally understood in political philosophy and ethics. Rather, ideal
theory is theory that relies on certain assumptions regarding human agents or
regarding society, that are not satisfied, and might possible never be satisfied (e.g. the
Okin, Ibid., Chapter 5.
Rawls, Restatement, p.164-165.
Ibid., p. 13..
assumption that people do not rely on stereotypes when making judgements). They
are hypothetical agents or hypothetical societies with certain capacities or properties
which real agents or real societies lack. Onora O’Neill made a useful distinction
between abstraction and idealisation, with abstraction being the leaving out of some
information, whereas idealisation being the adding of some information about agents
or societies. As she argues, the problem in theory is not abstraction, but idealisation.36
Under this understanding of ideal theory, justice as fairness is ideal theory for at least
two reasons: because everyone will abide by the principles of justice—the full
compliance assumption—but also because the parties who choose the principles of
justice are behind a veil of ignorance. These two idealisations in justice as fairness put
severe limitations on its usefulness for addressing gender issues. The full compliance
assumption would imply that women’s equal basic liberties are respected, and their
fair equality of opportunity guaranteed. In such a hypothetical situation, women
would no longer be discriminated and old boys’ networks would disappear. While
most people in Western societies tend to think that they act like this, the scientific
evidence cited earlier strongly suggests otherwise. In addition, social institutions and
human interactions have not been formed on an impartial basis—instead they are the
products of a history of women’s oppression, and still tend to push men and women in
gender roles which, everything taken together, tend to disadvantage women. Ideal
theory may be useful to think about a gender-just utopia, but they do not offer us
many clues on how to proceed from where we are now.
The limited scope of justice as fairness and its ideal-theoretical nature should make us
wonder whether an assessment of the social primary goods metric for questions of
gender injustice is not a misguided exercise. The social primary goods metric is part
of a political and ideal-theoretical conception of justice. But such a political and idealtheoretical conception of justice brackets out the main sources and manifestations of
gender injustice. This leads us to one of the following conclusions. Either we say that
justice as fairness, and thus also its primary goods metric, has only limited—and very
straightforward—things to say about gender justice: that women should be given
equal rights and liberties as men, and that everyone should abide by the principles of
justice and thus not discriminate men and women in the political domain. Given that
Onora O’Neill, “Abstraction, Idealization and Ideology in Ethics”, in” J.D.G. Evans (ed.), Moral
Philosophy and Contemporary Problems, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 55-69.
Rawls is widely considered to be the most important 20th century theorist of justice,
this would be a disappointing conclusion. Alternatively we ignore the conditions of
the ideal-theoretical and political nature of justice as fairness, and take the social
primary goods account outside the scope of justice as fairness, asking whether it could
be a useful metric for gender justice assessments in its own right. That is the task in
the following section.
4. Gender justice and social primary goods in non-ideal theory
How useful is the social primary goods metric in discussing gender inequality in a
non-ideal setting?
Take a typical case of gender inequality in a mixed-sex couple with dependents. Tina
and Tony are similarly educated. They have two children. Suppose Tina has the same
hourly wage as Tony, but she holds a half-time job, while he has a full-time position.
The couple pools their income and considers it joint income. As with most couples in
their situation, Tina will work fewer hours for pay, but does many more hours of
unpaid household and care work.37 She has often asked Tony to share this burden
more equally, but even though he officially claims to be a gender egalitarian, he
denies the inequality and is annoyed when Tina raises the issue again. After many
unsuccessful attempts, she stops complaining, as she doesn’t want to jeopardise her
The social primary goods metric would not detect any inequality: Tina has the same
income as Tony (as they share it), and she has the same opportunity to apply for fulltime jobs as Tony. But the metric would not be able to detect the real dimensions of
gender inequality: Tina has a considerably heavier total work load than her partner,
and she would like to do more paid work but cannot because her husband refuses to
do more of the care and household work. Her responsibility for her children has put
her in a weaker position, perhaps even in a trap: she is dependent on the marriage to
keep up her material standard of living and that of her children, but this considerably
Jonathan Gershuny (2000), Changing Time. Work and Leisure in Post-industrial Societies, Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
See Aafje Komter (1989). ‘Hidden Power in Marriage’, Gender & Society, 3/2: 187-216; Jennifer
Hochschild (1989). The Second Shift. Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. New York:
weakens her bargaining position within the household.39 She puts up with the
injustice, because she doesn’t want to jeopardise her children’s well-being. Still, like
many mothers she would prefer to have a more egalitarian family arrangement.40
We could reconsider the primary good metric by adding some other elements that
might allow us to better detect the inequality between Tony and Tina. Thomas Pogge
has suggested adding leisure to the index of primary goods.41 Adding leisure would
allow us to detect one more dimension of gender inequality. Eva Kittay has argued
that care should be added to the index of primary goods, if we want to include
dependents and care givers within the scope of justice: “the good both to be cared for
in a responsive dependency relation if and when one is unable to care for oneself, and
to meet the dependency needs of others without incurring undue sacrifices oneself is a
primary good in the Rawlsian sense because it is a good of citizens as citizens pursue
their own conception of the good and exercise their moral faculties of justice and
care.”42 Including care and leisure in a social primary goods metric would help us
greatly in using it as a metric for gender justice. However, as I will argue below, this
would be a move in the direction of capabilities, and would make primary goods
equally vulnerable to the Rawlsian objections against using capabilities as a metric. In
order to show why this is the case, let us now first turn to the capability approach.
5. The capability approach
When Sen first formulated his main critique of Rawls in his 1979 Tanner Lecture, he
sketched the outlines of his proposed alternative, the capability approach. What are
the core characteristics of the capability approach? The capability approach makes
interpersonal comparisons by focuses on people’s real or effective opportunities to do
what they want to do, and be who they want to be. These beings and doings are called
a person’s functionings, and include such basic functionings as being healthy, being
sheltered, not being mentally ill, engaging in social relations, and more complex and
specific functionings such as combining a job with family life, or being as athletic as
If she were to divorce, her material standard of living and that of her children would significantly
decrease, while that of her husband would rise. See e.g. Sarah Jarvis & Stephen Jenkins (1999).
‘Marital Split and Income Change: Evidence for Britain’, Population Studies, 53/2: 237-254.
See the references in fn 38.
Pogge (1989), Realising Rawls, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 198-199.
Kittay, Love’s Labor, p. 103.
one can be. Capabilities are the effective opportunities that a person has to attain these
Sen’s critique of primary goods boils down to the fact that primary goods cannot
adequately account for interindividual differences in people’s abilities to convert these
primary goods into what people are able to be and to do in their lives. In contrast, so
Sen argues, we should focus directly on people’s capabilities to function. Primary
goods are the means to pursue one’s life plan. But the real opportunities or
possibilities that a person has to pursue her own life plan, are not only determined by
the primary goods that she has at her disposal, but also by a range of factors that
determine to what extent she can turn these primary goods into valuable states of
being and doing.
Sen argued that Rawls’s use of primary goods led to the inability of justice as fairness
to account for inter-individual diversity in the conversion of these resources into
valuable states of being and doing. Over time, Sen has discussed three categories of
such conversion factors. Firstly, personal conversion factors (e.g. metabolism,
physical condition, sex, reading skills, intelligence) influence how a person can
convert the characteristics of the commodity into a functioning. If a person is
handicapped, or in a bad physical condition, or has never learned to cycle, then the
bicycle will be of limited use in enabling the functioning of mobility. Secondly, social
conversion factors (e.g. public policies, social or religious norms, discriminating
practices, gender roles, societal hierarchies, power relations) and environmental
conversion factors (e.g. climate) play a role in the conversion from characteristics of
the good to the individual functioning.
Justice as fairness postulates that the object of justice is the basic structure of society,
that is, the totality of societal institutions. For the capability approach, justice is
everywhere. For example, the quality of life of individuals in terms of their capability
sets is profoundly affected by the behaviour of other family members and indeed
behaviour of people outside the family. The injustices that such behaviour can
Some key references by Sen on the capability approach, in particular in relation to social justice are
his “Equality of What”; “Rights and Capabilities”, in his Rsources, Values and Development,
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 307-324; “Well-being, Agency and Freedom The
Journal of Philosophy, 82(4), pp. 169-221; “Justice: Means versus Freedoms”, Philosophy and Public
Affairs, 19, 1990, pp. 111-121; Inequality Reexamined, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992; “Gender
Inequality and Theories of Justice”, in Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover, Women, Culture, and
Development, Oxford: Clarendon Pres, 1995, pp. 259-273, and Development as Freedom, New York:
Knopf Publishers, 1999.
generate need to be part of a theory of justice, and not relegated to moral theory, or to
another type of justice theories, such as local justice.
In addition, the capability approach pays much attention to the material and nonmaterial circumstances that shape people’s opportunity sets, and the circumstances
that influence the choices that people make from the capability set receive a central
place in the interpersonal comparisons. For example, both Sen and Nussbaum have
paid much attention to the social norms and traditions that form women’s preferences,
and that influence their aspirations and their effective choices.44 Thus, the capability
approach is not contented with a focus on people’s capability sets, but insists that we
also need to scrutinize the context in which economic production and social
interactions take place, and in which people’s well-being is set, and whether the
circumstances in which people choose from their opportunity sets are just.
6. Gender justice in capabilities
The capability approach is thus a profoundly non-ideal approach. As idealisations in
political theory tend to obscure the causes of gender injustice, this is an important
advantage that it has over justice as fairness for thinking about gender justice.
Moreover, by focussing on the dimensions of well-being directly, rather than on the
means to well-being, it will account for all factors influencing a person’s well-being,
including sexist attitudes and social norms, the gendered nature of social institutions,
and processes within the family that disadvantage women.
How would a capability account judge the case of Tina and Tony? Before being able
to answer that question, we would need to know which capabilities would be
considered morally relevant for the purpose of justice. Capability theorists have
provided two types of answer to the question which capabilities matter. Martha
Nussbaum has developed a list of central human capabilities of which everyone
should be entitled to a minimum threshold. She argues that every government should
make sure that its citizens can enjoy minimum levels of these capabilities.45 Sen, on
the other hand, does not want to endorse one specific list of capabilities, and argues
that it is not up to the theorist to make such decision, but rather to a democratic
Sen,”Gender and Cooperative conflict”, in Irene Tinker (ed.), Persistent Inequalites, New York:
Oxford University Press, pp. 123-149; Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Nussbaum, Ibid.
process among the relevant agents.46 I subscribe to this second line, as I think that
Nussbaum’s method lacks both political and epistemological legitimacy. Instead, I
have proposed some a procedural method for the selection of capabilities, which can
be used to generate a list of relevant capabilities for the question of gender inequality
in western societies.47 This list contains life and physical health; mental well-being;
bodily integrity and safety; social relations and support; political empowerment;
education and knowledge; domestic work and non-market care; paid work and other
projects; shelter and environment; mobility; leisure activities; time-autonomy; respect;
and religion.48
Using this list to consider the case of Tina and Tony leads us to note inequalities that
the social primary goods index cannot detect. First, Tina has less control over her
time, and indeed less time for herself than Tony, as he refuses to do a more equitable
share of the household work and care. There are also inequalities in the amounts of
domestic work and non-market work, and paid work: Tina would like to do less of the
former and more of the latter, but Tony refuses to do this—a refusal which Tina
comes to accept, as her bargaining position is significantly weaker than Tony’s.
Adding leisure and care to the list of social primary goods would diminish the gap
between social primary goods and capabilities, but would also make the primary
goods account vulnerable to some critiques it has on the capabilities account, as will
be shown in the next section.
It thus seems that there is a crucial difference between capability and social primary
goods accounts: the former gives us a vocabulary to problematise and discuss the
gender division of labour, which the latter makes very hard to do. Virtually all
feminist political theorists will argue that the dynamics around the gender division of
labour within the household are key to any understanding and judgement of gender
inequality and gender justice; the fact that Rawls considers this a matter of local rather
than political justice, and that social primary goods are bad indicators of such
injustice, limits their potential to discuss issues of gender justice. Thus, so far the
arguments offered suggest that capabilities are a better metric than primary goods for
assessing gender justice.
Amartya Sen, “Capabilities, Lists and Public Reason”, Feminist Economics, 10(3), pp. 77-80.
Ingrid Robeyns, “Sen’s capability approach and gender inquality: Selecting relevant capabilities:,
Feminist Economics, 2003, 9(2-3), pp. ; and Ingrid Robeyns, “Selecting capabilities for quality of life
measurement”, Social Indicators Research, forthcoming.
Robeyns, “Sen’s capability approach and gender inequality” pp. 71-72.
7. Three Rawlsian objections
In this section we will consider three objections that Rawlsians could make of my
claim that the capability approach is better suited to deal with isues of gender justice
than justice as fairness, and social primary goods in particular.
The first objection concerns the publicity criterion. It has been argued by Rawls, that a
theory or principle of social justice should be a workable and a public criterion, that
is, inequalities and injustices should be able to be assessed by the public and should
not need to rely on impossible amounts of information.49 As Rawls puts it:
What is crucial is always to recognize the limits of the political and the practicable… we
must respect the constraints of simplicity and availability of information to which any
practicable political conception (as opposed to a comprehensive moral doctrine) is
The suggestion is that as capabilities are very hard to measure or assess in such a
public fashion, and as they would require very large amounts and difficult sorts of
information, the capability approach is unworkable as a theory of social justice or
gender justice.
The first part of the claim is that a capability-based theory of social justice would
require too much information. But it’s hard to see why it would count as a decisive
argument that a greater need for information would count against a conception of
justice. It is true that ceteris paribus, the less information a particular conception of
justice requires, the better; but given that Rawls regards justice the first virtue of
society, this surely can never be a decisive argument against a certain conception.
The second part of the claim is that the information needed to make interpersonal
comparisons and claims of injustice has to be publicly verifiable. Given stability
considerations and incentive problems, this is indeed a justified requirement for a
plausible conceptualization of justice. But is it too difficult to know for each
individual which capabilities his or her capability set contains, so that such evaluation
would not rely on publicly verifiable information?
There are two ways to assess the capabilities of a person, and both ways can be used
in a complementary fashion. The first strategy is to try to measure a person’s
capabilities directly. However, generally one does not have information on a person’s
Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. 182; see also Cohen, Ibid., and Pogge, Ibid.
Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. 182.
capabilities, and one would have to assess her achieved functionings levels and infer
from those levels of achievements a person’s capability set. So far, the existing
empirical studies measuring or estimating capabilities have been limited to compare
group differences in inequalities or the quality of life, either by making use of
econometric techniques or based on the assumption that group differences in achieved
functionings mirror group differences in their capability sets.51 However, to assess an
individual’s capability set rather than group differences in capability levels, this
technique obviously can’t work.
Here the second methodological strategy might be more helpful. One could start by
analyzing the capability inputs, that is, the means and factors of influence on the
capabilities. These include the institutional system (and basic structure) in which an
individual functions, the interaction with others, and a broad range of resources.
These capability inputs also include all Rawlsian primary goods, together with other
social primary goods that are especially important for gender justice, such as leisure
and care. In addition, we would carefully scrutinize the social, environmental and
personal conversion factors. If one of those conversion factors can be argued to lower
the conversion of income (or other primary goods) into valuable capabilities, then this
could provide a claim for either extra resources, or other social policies or public
goods (such as ramps for wheel chair users, child care facilities for parents, effective
anti-racist social policies, and so forth). Finally, the capability approach would also
require that the social constraints on the choices that people make from their
capability set would be scrutinized, but this can easily be done as a complementary
task to the evaluation of the distribution of resources, and the redistributive and other
policies resulting from the analysis of the conversion factors.
If a capability-based theory of social justice conducts the interpersonal comparison of
individual advantage in this second way, and not by aiming to assess capabilities
directly, it not only becomes a standard of justice that is much more public, but the
complementarities with a resources-based evaluation become evident. The capability
approach can thus be developed into a theory of justice in a way that incorporates the
Rawlsian focus on social primary goods.
In conclusion, the publicity objection
The latter technique is based on the premise that the distribution of preferences among groups is the
same. For a survey of these empirical studies, see Wiebke Kuklys and Ingrid Robeyns, “Sen’s
capability approach to welfare economics”, Cambridge Working Paper in Economics, 0415, February
against a capability account of gender justice raises some issues of concern, but are, in
my view, not to be regarded as decisive.
The second Rawlsian objection has been formulated by Thomas Pogge. He argues
that the central place of the conversion factors in the capability approach opens the
door for all sorts of anti-feminist arguments that would stress the biological difference
between men and women, and which would argue that justice requires that women be
treated differently so as to account for their different biology. As is well-known, such
biology-based arguments have been the main strand of arguments in the denial of the
same rights, liberties and opportunities to women in the past. Why, Pogge asks, open
the door to arguments invoking the special needs of males, for example based on their
lower average life expectancy?52
This is a serious concern. There have indeed been arguments that women are
biologically so different from men, that we should not try to assure equal
opportunities on the job market for them or encourage them to study mathematics, but
rather that gender justice requires us to protect girls, and prepare them for domesticity
and child care, as this will maximise their chance for a long-term marriage, which is
what ultimately makes women happy.53 A full theory of gender justice would have to
be able to provide an answer to such arguments. At the same time it would also have
to deal with the fact that women are different from men, but that almost all of these
difference are of nil relevance when thinking about what justice requires. As I will
argue in the next section, capability theorists can formulate a response to this
objection. But before considering that reply, let us turn to the third Rawlsian
The third Rawlsian objection states that in a capability theory of justice, gender
inequalities in incomes are no longer considered of any moral concern as long as men
and women have the same capabilities. Suppose that some might argue that women
are indeed worse of in financial terms, but that this is a consequence of their choice
for a life which pays more attention to children and other social relations and nonmaterial aspects of well-being rather than the accumulation of status in politics and
the labour market and financial wealth. Thus, such women had the same capabilities
for public success and material well-being as their male counterparts, but they chose
Pogge, Ibid., pp. 182-4.
See James Toolley, The Miseducation of Women, London: Contiuum Press.
for a life which focuses on social relationships and less stressful lives. Men tend to
choose differently, but this doesn’t generate issues of injustice, as both had the
capabilities to choose for either types of life. In short, a feminist Rawlsian will be
worried that the capability discourse will legitimise inequality in income and public
power, on the assumption that women had the same chance to choose life-paths with
high incomes, but instead choose for other types of lives which are not so lucrative,
but rewarding in other non-material dimensions.
8. Towards a capability theory of gender justice
The second and third Rawlsian objections show that the capability approach needs to
add principles of gender justice to its focus on functionings and capabilities. Even
though capabilities are of ultimate moral concern, this does not justify each and every
gender inequality in income and wealth. Sen has recognised that the capability
approach does not account to a theory of justice, and that principles need to be added,
but has not proposed any such principles or theory.
Could we develop an outline of a theory of gender justice which recognises the
strengths of capabilities as a metric for interpersonal comparisons for the purpose of
justice, but which also includes principles that avoid unpleasant conclusions such as
that inequalities in income would no longer be of any intrinsic moral concern?
I would propose that a society can only be consider gender just, if and only if the
following 3 conditions are met.54
First, the capability sets for men and women should be equal, except for inequalities
that are due to sex differences that are not gender differences, and where the
inequality cannot be compensated for or rectified by human intervention. This implies
that if a biological fact impacts on gender inequalities in capabilities, then only when
no human intervention can diminish this inequality will it count as ethically
acceptable. For example, only mothers can breastfeed their children. The ‘costs’ or
the disadvantage that this creates, is an inequality but not an injustice, as long as
facilitating and compensating policies are in place, such as providing them the option
of bottle feeding, and allowing for paid maternity and breastfeeding leave. However,
because gender and sex interact with parental inequalities in different ways for men
I give a more elaborate defence of these principles in another paper, “Outline of a theory of gender
and women, developing a theory of gender justice requires the simultaneous
development of a theory of parental/procreative justice. To the best of my knowledge,
there does not, as yet, exist such a theory of parental justice.
Second, the constraints on choice from the capability set should not be structured
according to morally irrelevant characteristics, such as gender. This implies that
gendered social and moral norms and gendered practices need to be just in
themselves. If they induce men or women to systematically foreclose certain options,
then these norms are unjust.
Third, the ‘pay-offs’ of the different options in the capability set need to be justified
and should not be gender-biased. Thus, jobs or other social positions that are
numerically dominated by either women or men should not systematically be paid less
without any plausible and just justification.
If these three principles were met, then we would have a reply to the second and third
Rawlsian objections. I am tempted to think that the above three principles of gender
justice are both Rawlsian and Senian in spirit, and try to build on insights from both
approaches. However, it is also clear that reaching such a gender just society would be
a long and difficult process, because the above principles include not only changes in
social institutions (for which the government is generally considered a legitimate
agent) but also cultural elements which are to a large extent beyond any government’s
terrain. Gender justice can never appropriately be dealt with when justice is
understood as only a political conception of justice, but needs to include the full scope
of human life.