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JUSTICE AND FAMILY: AN INHERENT CONTRADICTION ?

"Justice is indeed compatible with the institution of family and more importantly, it is a necessary component for the institution of family." Shreshtha Sharma busts popular myths and explains why the objectives of justice are compatible with the institution of family.

Questions which were raised back in late 1980s literature on family, justice and gender are still heard in the daily households. The enquiry about posing value of justice against the fundamental set up of family life is very much part of household comments and conversations.


Justice in simple terms is the redressal of inequalities, based on resources, inequalities that are created by the society as well as by nature. It is often argued that justice can’t always be applicable in each and every arena, here mainly the institution of family. There are several arguments supporting this belief and various confuting it.

Conflicting Values?


"Parivaar me pyaar jyada jaruri hai ya nayaay”, in a family whether love is more important or justice is often asked. Michael Sandel in his work Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982) states that Justice can not be applied to family because there is no scarcity of resources or competition, as the need for justice arises because of competition and it can be set in the day-to-day life example of a mother feeding the family members first, and then taking the leftover or rest.


Sandel questions John Rawls's Theory of Justice which proposes justice as a ‘primary moral virtue’, which is a must for the family. There are many other more important virtues than justice such as love, sacrifice, dependency, etc. Other philosophers such as Hume’s and Rousseau’s arguments of family as a different kind of association based on the characteristic of ‘enlarged affections’, are to be noted within this perspective, where feelings dominate rather than scarcity of resources or competition. If justice is tried to be applied in these conditions, then it might lead to conflicting situations.



Susan Moller Okin in her work “Justice, Gender and the Family” argues that there is a major difference between ‘real’ and ‘ideal’. She states that people have a very idealised and romanticised idea of family and ignores the fact that although families are important spaces but even it is the space that can subject your individuality to the extreme, the fact that injustice is done to the women and children. As John Stuart Mill correctly puts it, “the two are seen ‘one person in law’, for the purpose of inferring that what is hers is his, but it is to be noted that the parallel inference is never drawn as what is his is hers”. Say, the custom of ‘Coverture’ in 16th and 17th century England, states that a woman is a non-legal person as she has to submit her identity to her husband. In 2020, with the imposing of lockdowns world over, domestic violence and abuse cases have risen to disturbing levels.


Okin, goes on to state, “The substantial inequalities that continue to exist between the different sexes in the society are effecting almost all the women and a large number of children, underlying these inequalities is the unequal distribution of unpaid labour in the family."


There is a need to understand that in, justice as the ‘primary moral virtue’, ‘primary does not mean the most elevated, it means the most basic. Justice is the core minimum and the basic of relations. Emotions like love, sacrifice are important, we need to understand that they are not conflicting with justice as justice permeates them, they are built upon justice.

Undermining Nature?


Family is beyond justice because hierarchy in the family is rooted in nature, they can not be addressed socially. hierarchy is fundamental, there is a fundamental difference between child-bearing and child-rearing. Allan Bloom in his work The Closing of the American Mind writes that the responsibility of men is not obligatory but the responsibility of women to rear children is necessary because it is ‘natural’ and natural is necessary.


“Aurat hai, bachhe aur ghar sambhalna prakratik hai”, if it is woman, it is natural for her to take care of the children and household, are day today comments made casually. Just like Bloom believes that the idea of paternity leave is laughable, many in the present believe the same. He further states that “feminism” is negatively ‘devaluing the classics’ and the classical thought, disrespecting them, it is inferioritising ‘mascunility’ unnecessarily and further is anti-family as well as ‘anti-philosophy’.


The feminists who argue against the traditional gender-structured family, are unsightly considered as ‘anti-family’. Well, it is to be understood that ‘natural’ is not a pre-given domain, which is always static and stable. It is a social construct, very much socially conditioned. The threshold between natural and social is not stabilised, it is quite a debatable one. Nature many times is absorbed in society and presented as ‘natural fact’. Feminity and masculinity are very much socially conditioned. Revisiting the philosophy of classics from the standpoint of gender is not disrespecting the classics, it is that these classics have some assumptions which are not to be taken for granted.

So, Compatible? Indeed.


These are the questions and answers and varied perspectives which are still very much present in the vocabulary to people discussing family life. Especially, here one can talk of the Indian context, as we have heard it from many family relatives in daily conversations with them. Being aware of the gender bias and calling it out in the most primary arena of life- family is a must. It is not one thing, it shapes the entire socio-cultural knowledge system. It shapes the primary understanding of the world. And a ‘just’ personal space is the most fundamental and basic thing we can ask for.


The egalitarian society based on justice and equality is not an absurd impossibility, rather it is one of the major components that is needed and we should build upon. Injustice should not be allowed, it is clearly harmful. Family setup is definitely possible within a just framework, we just need to speak for it. Equality, respect, and resources are essential.

Justice is indeed compatible with the institution of family and more importantly, it is a necessary component for the institution of family.



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