Taking Children’s Interests Seriously

by Martha Albertson Fineman

Image by engin akyurt from Pixabay

Abstract:
This is a chapter from What Is Right For Children: The Competing Paradigms of Religion and Human Rights, M.A. Fineman and K. Worthington Eds. (Ashgate 2009). It explores the implications of the fact that schools have become one of the battlegrounds in American culture wars and parental rights are entangled with religious freedom. Children’s independent interest in education and the obligations the state has to children as individuals are overwhelmed in discussions focused on validating parental rights over their children. Religious beliefs are often offered as justification for removing children from secular public schools, allowing parents to place them in private religious academies or home schooling situations. Any policy pertaining to the education of children should require a balancing of interests. As with many other decisions affecting children and families, the rights and responsibilities of parents and the state must be components of any consideration of what is appropriate for children. The problem is that bringing parents and the state into the discussion often diverts attention away from children. This chapter concludes that perhaps the best way to protect a child’s interests regarding education is by mandating universal public education for all children. Continue reading Taking Children’s Interests Seriously

Why Marriage?

by Martha Albertson Fineman

Image via https://pixabay.com/users/qimono-1962238/

“In 1974, when I was a law student in a class called Injunctions, we often struggled through the factual and legal complexities of an opinion determining whether an injunction should issue. My professor, Owen Fiss, was fond of reminding us after each such session that the object of this entire struggle – the injunction – was “only a piece of paper.” His point was that it takes more than the issuance of some form or document to make things happen, to transform the status quo. Words are, after all, only words. Standing alone, they often are not worth much more than the paper upon which they are written. Instead, it is the interpretation and implementation that really matter-not the issuance of the document, but what comes next, that confers content and meaning.

I cannot help but reflect upon this bit of practical-injunction-realism when confronted with the many questions that emerge in response to contemporary policy discussions about the need for laws to strengthen the institution of marriage. Like an injunction, marriage is reducible to a piece of paper-the marriage license. This piece of paper distinguishes one on-going relationship from others, not officially designated marital in nature. Yet what meaning does marriage have beyond this fragile manifestation? Continue reading Why Marriage?

Upcoming Workshop on Vulnerability and the Organization of Academic Labor

Our workshop on Vulnerability and the Organization of Academic Labor will take place next Friday and Saturday at Nottingham Trent University. Interested? You can follow us @VHCInitiative on Twitter or @VulnerabilityAndTheHumanConditionInitiative on Facebook for updates. Information about the workshop from our call for papers is below:

“Vulnerability, which arises from the fact that we are embodied beings, is the universal human condition. While this insight is important to understand how human beings are inevitably embedded within social institutions, such as the workplace and systems of education, the language of vulnerability also allows us to analyse institutional forms of organisation and operation. As human creations, our institutions are vulnerable to capture, corruption, failure and change, which can frustrate or pervert the vital role they play in regard to the wellbeing of individuals and the reproduction of society. This workshop is interested in exploring the intersection of individual and institutional vulnerability in the context of academic labour, with special interest in legal academics, law schools, and the legal profession. We invite participants to interrogate the purpose of legal education in relation to the reproduction of democratic societies, with attention to the complex and interlinked nature of vulnerability in legal education, legal practice, and legal governance. Continue reading Upcoming Workshop on Vulnerability and the Organization of Academic Labor

The Individual in Social and Legal Contexts: There Can Be No “I” Without the “We”

by Martha Albertson Fineman

Image via https://pixabay.com/users/geralt-9301/

Contemporary Western systems of law and justice reflect a preference for liberty and autonomy. An independent and fully-functioning adult constitutes the ‘idealized ordinary” or paradigmatic subject­ – the being whose professed capabilities, aspirations, and needs guide the generation of policy and law. This legal subject is one among equals, inhabiting a world that valorizes personal, not societal responsibility. State intervention or regulation is perceived as a violation of liberty. Social arrangements and institutions, such as family and corporation, are deemed “private,” even though they have significant implications for the well-being of society and for children and those not self-sufficient. Suggestions for public supervision are easily deflected by ideological constructs, such as family privacy, meritocracy and free markets.


Vulnerability theory rejects this static deficient misrepresentation of what it means to be human, arguing for the recognition of a legal subject reflecting the complex and varied lives actually lived by human beings. The concept of the “vulnerable subject” recognizes that human beings are first and foremost embodied beings who are inherently, universally, and constantly “vulnerable.” The term vulnerable is used to reflect the reality that throughout the life-course we are constantly susceptible to changes in our bodily or physical well-being. Changes in embodiment can be developmental, evolving as we move from birth to death. Such changes can be negative and located in our mortality, or positive, reflecting our growth and increasing capacity. Changes in bodily well-being often result from circumstances over which individuals have little or no control: accident, illness, or catastrophe (naturally occurring or humanly provoked). We must therefore understand vulnerability as the human condition – not just a characteristic of some particularly or uniquely weak or disadvantaged individuals.

Continue reading The Individual in Social and Legal Contexts: There Can Be No “I” Without the “We”

Vulnerability and Social Justice

Martha Albertson Fineman

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

“What, if anything, does the designation of “social” add to the ideal of justice? The phrase “social justice” is a rallying cry in progressive circles, perhaps because justice unmodified seemingly fails to convey the magnitude of the underlying demand for change. However, the meaning of the term is not particularly clear, nor is it used in a consistent manner. This Article briefly considers the origins of the term social justice and its evolution beside our understandings of human rights and liberalism, which are two other significant justice categories. After this reflection on the contemporary meaning of social justice, I suggest that vulnerability theory, which seeks to replace the rational man of liberal legal thought with the vulnerable subject, should be used to define the contours of the term. Recognition of fundamental, universal, and perpetual human vulnerability reveals the fallacies inherent in the ideals of autonomy, independence, and individual responsibility that have supplanted an appreciation of the social. I suggest that we need to develop a robust language of state or collective responsibility, one that recognizes that social justice is realized through the legal creation and maintenance of just social institutions and relationships.

Continue reading Vulnerability and Social Justice

Public Procurement / Government Outsourcing

A conversation with Dr. S.N. Nyeck

Our latest episode of Voices in Vulnerability features an interview with Visiting Scholar, Dr. S.N. Nyeck. Dr. Nyeck is an international scholar known primarily for her work on gender and sexuality politics in Africa. Her current research delves into the history and impact of government contracting from ‘colonial’ times to the present. In our interview, Dr. Nyeck asks, “What is the future of democracy when governance is done by contracts?”

Listen to our interview, learn more about Dr. Nyeck, and find her book.

Beyond Identities: The Limits of an Antidiscrimination Approach to Equality

by Martha Fineman

image via https://pixabay.com/users/qimono-1962238/

“This article compares the legal culture of equality in the United States with the legal cultures of other constitutional democracies. It looks at two manifestations of equality: equality in its narrow sense – as a nondiscrimination mandate – and equality in its broader, substantive sense – as establishing a positive right to access the social goods or resources necessary to sustain equally valued individuals. The article ultimately argues that the foundational difference between the manner in which equality is understood in the United States and how it is understood in much of the rest of the world arises from the recognition and acceptance in other countries that human need and vulnerability are not only an individual responsibility but also a state responsibility.

The U.S. Constitution is ancient by international standards, and it embodies and idealizes an antiquated political-legal subject and a restricted sense of state responsibility that is unrealistic for defining the appropriate legal relationships that exist between the modern state, the lives of individuals, and the operation of complex societal institutions. Clinging to the idea of a “liberal” constitutional or political legal subject that was prevalent when the U.S. Constitution was drafted has impeded the evolution of a concept of equality that would complement our developing understanding of what is necessary in terms of state responsibility to ensure that all people are treated as “created equal.” This article concludes by offering the concept of the “vulnerable subject” as a more viable and appropriate figure around which to build contemporary policy and law and suggesting some measures legislatures and courts could take to build a more responsive and responsible state that would function to ensure meaningful equality of access and opportunity. “

See more here.

Equality and Difference – The Restrained State

by Martha Albertson Fineman

image via https://pixabay.com/users/walkerssk-1409366/

“Contemporary American law, culture, and political theory restrain the concept of equality as a tool of social justice. Equality in conjunction with a strong emphasis on personal liberty operates as a mandate for curtailing state action, rather than an aspirational measure of the comparative well-being of individuals. As a check on state involvement, our cramped notion of equality limits the state’s ability to affirmatively address economic, political, social, and structural inequalities. As interpreted in modern Supreme Court jurisprudence, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution actually works to restrict the remedial ability of the state. Equality is understood as a mandate for formalized equal treatment; it operates as a nondiscrimination ideal. This ideal minimizes existing structural disadvantages and thus impedes a more substantive approach to equality, which would recognize and accommodate differences and consider outcome as well as treatment. This formal version of equality, while appropriate on some levels and in some contexts, is not sufficiently flexible to address contemporary disparities in political, social, and economic well-being in America. Any distinctions in the treatment of individuals can raise suspicion about government action, and this is particularly true with distinctions involving personal characteristics that are virtually impossible to constitutionally justify, such as race or gender. At the same time, the emphasis on discrimination or difference in the treatment of protected individuals or groups has been viewed as the primary affront to the principle of equality, rather than the widespread (but nondiscriminatory) exclusion from the benefits of American prosperity and technological advancement experienced by those who stand outside as well as inside these protected identity categories. That generalized harm and deprivation is not seen as constituting a legally remedial form of inequality, indicates that an adherence to formal equality has seemingly eclipsed our moral and political aspirations for social justice. In effect, this means that the state and its actors and institutions can legally treat individuals poorly, just as long as they treat them the same.”

Read more here: https://www.law.ua.edu/pubs/lrarticles/Volume%2066/Issue%203/Fineman%20Online.pdf.

Are Emotions Universal?

by Jennifer Hickey, Esq., Postdoctoral Fellow, Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative

polar bears cuddling
image via https://pixabay.com/users/image-ws-69789/

A recently published essay, “United by Feelings,” explores the idea that the basic emotional structure of the mind is a biological fact universal to all mammals. The authors reject the “constructionist” view that human emotions are not innate and are merely contextual interpretations of bodily sensations. Constructionists theorize that our minds categorize feelings into emotions that appear instinctual because we do not have conscious access to this mental categorization. For example, if your stomach is churning while you are in a bakery, your brain may perceive this as hunger, while in a hospital waiting room, your brain may label the feeling as worry. The emotion is cognitively constructed based upon the circumstances. In this sense, constructionists believe that emotions are “learned” through cultural experience.

The essay’s authors are proponents of affective science, which offers a different view. They submit that deep emotions are not conceptually constructed. Rather, all mammals share seven primary emotions which evolved to aid survival: fear, lust, care, play, rage, seeking, and panic/grief. These emotions are then filtered through three levels of the mind, which produce subtle distinctions across cultures and individuals. The evolution of the mind is thus a story of how these layers developed and formed a “feedback loop” that is “not strictly a brain process, but an embodied, enactive, embedded, and sociocultural process.”

This affective/emotional approach allows us to fully consider the role and contribution of feelings in perception, thinking, decision-making, and social behavior. Rather than idealizing rational thought and portraying emotions as mere complications that disrupt or corrupt reason, we can begin to examine the true contributions that emotions have made to human achievement. Indeed, the authors point out that the advances of the complex tool industry and the evolution of human family structures could not have happened without parallel advances in the emotional life of man. Continue reading Are Emotions Universal?

“The Tentative Workplace”

from The Autonomy Myth by Martha A. Fineman

Image via https://pixabay.com/users/skeeze-272447/

Considering the transformations that have taken place in the workplace strengthens the arguments for rethinking the social contract given changes that have made the family a more tenuous institution. Relationships within the workplace are now much more tentative. However, there are important differences in the nature and direction of the changes that have taken place within the two foundational societal spaces of family and workplace. Unlike what we see in the family, transformations in the workplace, for the most part, have not been in the direction of equality. Nor has there been increased participation for workers in the benefits and burdens of their institution. Workplace relationships remain mired in status and hierarchy, and the workplace is an increasingly unstable terrain for the individual worker.

Like the marriage relationship, the employment relationship often is cast in contractual terms, and the contracting parties are seen as having equal control in the bargaining process. As with marriage, the state has the authority to intervene and impose protective or other terms on the contracting parties. Historically, however, the state has been much less likely to recognize that there is a need for protective action in regard to the employment situation. This reluctance seems inappropriate.

Even more than the power imbalance that benefits husbands in the typical marriage, employers hold most of the power in the typical employment relationship. As a result, the terms of that contract are one-sided, and they subordinate the employee to the dictates of a market that is a take-it-or-leave-it system, analogous to contracts of adhesion that consumers face. Nor has the worker been successful in stating a claim to the wealth accumulated by the employer. By contrast, the property (capital) historically held in the hands of husbands is now susceptible to claims that the wife has made a contribution toward its accumulation that is equal in value to the monetary contribution of the husband.

Laws governing the employment relationship have not even begun to unsettle the historic premise that profit goes to the capitalist, while the worker is left with whatever bargain she or he can strike with regard to wages. The laws governing labor relations certainly favor employers. Unlike their European counterparts (and absent a strong union contract or civil service protections), American workers at all levels are employed “at will.” The employment-at-will doctrine gives an employer the freedom to dismiss an employee without having to state a reason for the action. This power was modified in the mid-twentieth century by legislation that imposed some restraints on employers, barring employers from firing someone based on factors such as her or his race, gender, or religion.

This lopsided employment arrangement is argued to be contractual in nature, thus carrying with it the implication of equal bargaining power because there is a reciprocal right that accrues to the employee. The employee is also free to leave at will, and the employer cannot stop her or him. But such freedom for the individual employee is largely illusory, an abstract proposition taken out of the context of power relations and economic necessity that inform most employment relationships.

Employers can usually hire someone else easily. For the employee, however, a new job may be hard to find, particularly if the employee is older, less skilled, or trained for a specific set of tasks for which there is not a robust employment market. Increasingly, employers require truly specialized employees or those with knowledge that might prove beneficial to a competitor to sign non competition contracts as a condition of employment. These contracts further reduce the possibility of securing new work, should the at-will employee decide to leave.

From the employers’ perspective legally, the employment-at-will doctrine has generally meant there was never much security for workers. Yet assumptions about employer responsibility to employees (at least managerial and white-collar employees) and the expectation that employment would secure some basic social goods are widely perceived as having shifted in the past few decades.

A vision of progressive change in the workplace centered on the individual worker is harder to articulate because there is no consensus about an idealized form of relationship to exemplify equality between employee and employer. Such a vision was supplied in the context of marriage by the idea of an equal partnership between husband and wife, a metaphor that was transferable in part because the relationship is between two presumptively equal individuals. However, in the workplace we deal with an individual, on the other hand, and quite often a large entity or organization, on the other. Even with small businesses, there is no accepted concept of parity and partnership between employer and employee – the relationship is structured as inherently unequal.

Given this, it is difficult to advance a concept of fair bargaining that does not entail workers’ banding together.But in part because they lack proper legal supports, unions have suffered declining membership. One way to establish a more equal social arrangement would be to articulate a theory for more parity in the workplace, in both union and nonunion contexts.

The low level of unionization in the United States leaves most workers without basic equity protections. This would seem to indicate that more regulation is needed to force employers to provide workers with basic protections. Even if the ultimate objective cannot be “equality” in the partnership sense of that term, we could work toward a more just and fair set of conditions governing the individual worker. At a minimum, these conditions should include more job security, better wages, a safe and comfortable working environment, and social benefits such as insurance, thus more “sharing” for the employee in the fruits that her or his labor produces.

In addition, and most significantly for purposes of this book, the basic terms of employment must also take into account changes in the organization and functioning of the family. The workplace must be made more responsive to the needs of workers as members of families, as people who are also responsible for dependency work and who need accommodation as a result. Unfortunately, the direction of the changes now under way in the workplace will make things harder, not easier; for those who are responsible for dependency within the family.