PHLB17H3 Lecture Notes - Lecture 4: Iris Marion Young, Lgbt Social Movements, Theodor W. Adorno
ProfessorProf. Hamish Russel
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Iris Marion Young – 1/2 – Justice and the Politics of Differences
Irish Marion Young
- Involved in grassroots political activism her whole life, which informed her philosophical writings.
- Held many different academic appointments before moving to the University of Chicago in 2000.
- Books include: Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990), Intersecting Voices (1997), and On Female
Body Experience (2004)-which includes her classic 1984 paper, "Throwing Like a Girl."
- The term "critical theory" is sometimes used narrowly to refer to the Marxist critique of capitalism and its
reinterpretation by "Frankfurt School" theorists, especially Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
- For Young, critical theory is much more inclusive, drawing on feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonialist, anti-
ableist, and LGBTQ social movements and theory. (E.g. "critical race theory" is the study of race and
racism through the methods of critical theory.)
- The focus is on the actual and non-ideal, rather than ideal theory.
What is Critical Theory?
“As understand it, critical theory is a normative reflection that is historically and socially contextualized. Critical
theory rejects as illusory the effort to construct a universal normative system insulated from a particular society.
Normative reflection must begin from historically specific circumstances because there is nothing but what is, the
given, the situated interest in justice, from which to start... Without social theory, normative reflection is abstract,
empty, unable to guide criticism with a practical interest in emancipation” (Young, 5).
“Unlike positivist social theory, however, which separates social facts from values, and claims to be value-neutral,
critical theory denies that social theory must accede to the given. Social description and explanation must be
critical, that is, aim to evaluate the given in normative terms” (5). Normative reflection is unlike scientific
knowledge: instead of being motivated by curiosity or a desire to master the facts, it is (or should be) a politically
motivated response to actual injustices (4-5).
Upshot: normative reflection and social theory must go together, each informing the other.
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Who needs principles, anyway?
- Bentham claims that political philosophy must begin with a single principle, and use this principle as the
basis for a complete normative system. Bentham’s challenge to non-utilitarian philosophers is to come
up with an alternative that is just as principled and systematic.
- Rawls accepts Bentham’s challenge. He tries to show that his two principles of justice are not arbitrary,
but in fact are more defensible than the principle of utility. His veil of ignorance argument is supposed
to show this.
- Young rejects Bentham’s challenge. She does not try to defend principles of justice; instead she analyzes
the demands of actual social movements, without expecting to arrive at a systematic, universally
- Young argues that any theory of justice which claims to have universally applicable principles must fail in
one of two ways (4):
1. If it is truly universal, presupposing no particular social context, then it is too abstract to be
useful in evaluating actual institutions and practices.
2. If it explicitly or implicitly presupposes a particular social context, then it is not genuinely
universal and (unless it adopts the methods of critical theory) it is probably taking for granted
the very institutions and practices it should be evaluating
The Distributive Paradigm
- Recall that Rawls is primarily concerned with
: how the institutions of the basic
structure distribute benefits and burdens to members of society.
o Effectively, Rawls argues that basic liberties and opportunities should be distributed equally,
while wealth, income, and the social bases of self-respect may be unequally distributed when
doing so is best for the least advantaged.
- This focus on distribution persists throughout post-Rawlsian political philosophy. Young calls it the
to emphasize that its assumptions are widely taken for granted, even by theorists
with otherwise very different views (liberals, Marxists, feminists, etc.).
o Young rejects the distributive paradigm: “The concepts of domination and oppression, rather
than the concept of distribution, should be the starting point for a conception of social justice”
- The distributive paradigm focuses too much on income, wealth and other material resources.
o Although the distribution of material resources is important, it's not the only thing that actual
social movements are concerned with. Here are some issues that do not seem to be solely or
primarily about the distribution of resources:
▪ Decision-making procedures, e.g. communities who want more say over the location of
hazardous government facilities, or whether or not a major employer shuts down its
▪ Division of labour, e.g. workers protesting the unnecessarily monotonous and
repetitive nature of their work, rather than their pay.
▪ Culture, e.g. criticisms of the media industry for stereotypical portrayals of minority
o Karl Marx made a similar point in his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875): "It was in general
a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it. Any
distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of
the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the
mode of production itself" (cited in Young, 15).
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