This is a short text I wrote as a PhD student when I studied John Rawls’s book Justice as Fairness. I’m not sure the argument holds, but I re-read it today and found it interesting.
In Justice as Fairness, Rawls argues that the family is a basic institution (2001, pp. 162–3). His main arguments are that the family has an essential role in the production and reproduction of society, and is a reasonable and effective way of raising and caring for children. In this brief text, I argue that Rawls’s arguments would also support treating the clan as a basic institution. Clan societies, however, are a threat to values that Rawls is otherwise committed to. I conclude that unless the idea of the family as a basic institution is dropped altogether, Rawls’s arguments needs to be strengthened.
Five of Rawls’s arguments on the topic of the family are relevant for the present purposes. I will begin by accounting for his two arguments that support why the family is part of the basic structure of society.
The first argument is that the family has an essential role in the production and reproduction of society and of its culture: “Reproductive labor is socially necessary labor” (p. 162). As it is phrased, the argument should be understood to exclude all other possibilities of producing and reproducing society and its culture. By hypothesis, alternatives include automatized pregnancies in biotechnical uteruses. But to Rawls, the family is “essential” to those goals.
Rawls’s second argument is that the family is a “reasonable and effective” way of raising and caring for children, and to ensure “their moral development and education into the wider culture” (p. 163). The argument is not phrased as to exclude other possibilities, which among other things include the kind of communal schemes for child raising that Plato suggests in The Republic. That is, Rawls’s argument allows for alternative ways of organizing the upbringing of children, should they be more reasonable and effective.
Three additional arguments are relevant to this topic. First, Rawls holds that the family must not take any particular form, such as being monogamous, heterosexual, “or otherwise” (p. 163). Second, Justice as Fairness does not apply to the internal life of families (pp. 163–4). For instance, there should not be political interventions to ensure that families are internally organized to benefit the least advantaged, or similar. Finally, the family imposes constraints on other arrangements of the basic structure (p. 163). The family should be respected as an institution in the basic structure of society although, for instance, fair equality of opportunity could be better achieved by overriding it.
In what follows, I argue that these five arguments would also support treating clans as institutions in the basic structure of society.
On one conceptualization, a clan is (Collins 2004, p. 231)
an informal organization comprising a network of individuals linked by kin-based bonds. Affective ties of kinship are its essence, constituting the identity and bonds of its organization. These bonds are both vertical and horizontal, linking elites and nonelites, and they reflect both actual blood ties and fictive kinship, that is, constructed or metaphorical kinship based on close friendships or marriage bonds that redefine the boundaries of the genealogical unit.
As with ordinary families, clans are governed by “unwritten rules, norms, and social conventions that are rooted in shared expectations and reinforced by social sanction” (Ibid). It is a common belief that clans are a thing of the past. But on the contrary, clans matter to political governance and state stability today (Hudson et al. 2015). For instance, when the Soviet system collapsed clans emerged as political actors and had “profound effects on the political trajectories” of former Soviet regimes (Collins 2004, p. 224). Clans are a common form of social organization in, for instance, Pakistan, Somalia, and Iraq (Hudson et al. 2015, p. 536).
It appears that in some societies, clans have an “essential” role in the production and reproduction of society and of its culture, in the same sense as Rawls argues that the family has an essential role in his ideal. Furthermore, at least in some societies and political contexts, clans are a “reasonable and effective” way of raising and caring for children, and to ensure “their moral development and education into the wider culture.” Thus, it is not immediately apparent on what grounds the family but not the clan should be included in the basic structure in an ideal society.
Consider also that Rawls holds that the family must not take any particular form, so there is no real reason why the clan could not be viewed as a larger or extended version of the common nuclear family. And, justice as fairness does not apply to the internal structure of such social constructions, so there are no justice-based reasons to deny groups of people their right to organize themselves in clans under the pretention of being large families. Finally, such clan-families would impose constraints on other arrangements of the basic structure, meaning that in just societies clans would de factoenjoy political protection.
There is something seriously distressing with the observation that Rawls’s arguments appear to support clans; it is intuitively obvious that this is not what Rawls had in mind. Clans are undesirable from the perspective of an individualist such as Rawls, not least because people living in clans gain their social value and respect from their position in the clan’s internal social hierarchy rather than from being individuals per se. Rawls’s ideal is not a clan society.
The problem is that it is difficult to make a clear and unambiguous distinction between clans and families while adhering to the view that families should be free from political interventions (in the sense reflected by Rawls’s three additional arguments above).
One possible solution is to commit to some legitimate interference with family-forming, such as “a family may not include more than eight adults,” or “there should be no hierarchies in terms of social power within families beyond those between adults and young children that are considered normal in the West.” Then, the boundaries between families and clans would be made more clear and it could be spelled out in detail why clans should not be included in the basic structure. It is also possible to refrain from including families in the basic structure altogether. Instead of committing to the defense of some social construct such as families or clans, Rawls could commit to the defense of individuals, whether they are children, parents, or parents-to-be. That appears to be more in line with Rawls’s project at large, which is individualist to its core.
Thus, in conclusion, because of the vaguenesses connected to social constructs such as families and clans, it is difficult to make the case that only families should be part of the basic structure of society. But, in light of Rawls’s individualism, it may be preferable to drop the idea of including families in the basic structure altogether and instead protect individuals qua individuals.
Collins, K. (2004). The Logic of Clan Politics: Evidence from the Central Asian Trajectories. World Politics, 56(2), 224–261.
Hudson, M. V., Lee Bowen, D., & Lynne Nielsen, P. (2015). Clan Governance and State Stability: The Relationship between Female Subordination and Political Order. American Political Science Review, 109(3), 535–555.
Plato. The Republic of Plato (F. MacDonald Cornford, Trans.): Oxford University Press.
Rawls, J. (2001). Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (E. Kelly Ed.): The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.