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Love's Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency.

Loves's Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency. By Eva Feder Kittay. New York: Routledge, 1999.256 pp.

The question of how to care for someone who is utterly dependent--whether that person is a child or a family member who is ill or disabled--arises for most of us at some point in our lives. It is a question that is particularly salient for women because of a common societal expectation that they will take over in such circumstances. But what if a woman does not want to make that sacrifice? Will she have a choice if she's not well positioned financially? Love's Labor challenges a political system that makes those situations threatening for many women and that puts the responsibility more on them than on men. The book also criticizes contemporary philosophical theories of equality and justice for ignoring the unique social position of people who care for dependents. With profound wisdom, clarity, and compassion, Eva Feder Kittay envisions a social world that acknowledges the inevitability of dependency and that truly values what she calls "dependency work."

The book is divided into three parts. The first discusses the nature of dependency relations and their moral dimensions. The second gives a "dependency critique" of John Rawls's highly influential theory of justice, amending that theory accordingly. The third--the most practical section--argues for the reform of social policies in the United States that determine the conditions of dependency work. That section also includes reflections on Kittay's own experience mothering a child with a severe disability. I thoroughly enjoyed almost every word. What interested me most, though, were the theoretical sections, where Kittay follows a familiar feminist line of criticism against mainstream theories of justice and equality but in a way that is unique and ultimately persuasive.

Philosophical theories of justice and equality commonly take as a starting point a conception of human beings as rational and equally empowered individuals. They then ground principles of justice or equality in that conception. Kittay positions herself, by contrast, among feminist theorists such as Annette Baier and Virginia Held, who "have begun to formulate a moral theory and a politics grounded in the maternal relation, the paradigm of a relation of care" (p. 19). To fully appreciate the demands of justice and equality, it is argued, we need to acknowledge that most human beings are embedded in dependency relations. And that's something we certainly won't forget if we begin with the relationship between a mother and her child.

However, the move to a maternal paradigm is itself open to criticism. For women philosophers to put mothers at the center of their moral deliberations is, seemingly, to reinforce an essentialist view of women as mothers. And furthermore, to focus on a relation in which one party is completely dependent and the other cares naturally (or so we tend to believe) seems to exclude concerns about justice, for it's not clear how justice matters in a naturally caring relationship.

Is Kittay susceptible to such criticism? Not if her focus is on "dependency relations" and "dependency workers" rather than on "maternal relations" and "mothers." And indeed, she's not committed to discussing only mothers. Focusing on dependency workers is preferable because it makes room for men as caregivers, and it emphasizes that those who fill such roles are workers. The caring they do is not simply a natural expression of themselves; it is work. And they should not have to perform it, according to Kittay, in conditions that are demeaning either to them or to their charges. She does not value care to the exclusion of justice; in her framework the two are inseparable.

It is interesting how Kittay merges care and justice. For example, unlike most feminists with whom she aligns herself, she shows faith in contractarian theories of justice. Annette Baier has written that "it takes inattention to cooperation between unequals ... to keep one a contented contractarian." But in outlining the revisions necessary to make Rawls's social contract theory more sensitive to dependency concerns, Kittay stakes out a different view.

We normally think of equality as an ideal of justice, not care (p. 18). As developed by Kittay, however, equality is "connection-based." We are equal in terms of properties that we share through our connection with others: the need to care for people close to us and to be cared for in situations of dependency (pp. 26-29, pp. 66-68). To preserve that equality, we must follow what Kittay calls the "principle of doulia" (simple translation: "what goes around comes around"). People who are dependent cannot always reciprocate the care they receive and those who care for them are vulnerable because of how much of their own energy is invested in the well-being of the other person. Reciprocity is indirect with a connection-based equality; the wider society that benefits from some people's caring work is obligated to reciprocate.

Kittay's discussion of the vulnerability of dependency workers is one place where she might fall prey to the criticism of those who theorize from relations of dependency. She writes that dependency workers need to put the needs of their charge before their own needs (p. 51, p. 91), which seems to advocate a form of caring that many feminists would associate with women's oppression. Some degree of self-sacrifice is surely inevitable with good caring, but in my view Kittay should emphasize more than she already does that dependency workers need not and should not work alone. They require leisure time just like any other worker, and the benefits they receive from the wider society should reflect that.

Love's Labor is an invaluable contribution to political theory, feminist philosophy, and bioethics. It should inform our future discussions in bioethics on a number of topics, including hospice, home care, working conditions for nurses, and the challenges faced by patients who are single parents with little social assistance. Kittay furthers the cause for social justice in health care on the behalf of those who perform much of the caring work.

Carolyn McLeod is in the department of philosophy at the University of Western Ontario on a post-doctoral re search fellowship with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:McLeod, Carolyn
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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