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A Defense of Okins Feminist Critique of Multiculturalism and Group Rights

A Defense of Okins Feminist Critique of Multiculturalism and Group Rights


Jonathan Kim
Whitworth University
Two fundamental pillars of liberalism are autonomy and equality. The former means the freedom
to make meaningful choices for oneself; the latter means the recognition of each persons equal dignity
and opportunity. These two overarching ideals, however, appear to have led to tensions between two
liberal movements, feminism and multiculturalism. While both aim at autonomy and equality, they have
generated an apparent paradox when it comes to the issue of group rights. In Feminism and
Multiculturalism: Some Tensions, Susan Moller Okin claims that group rights ought to yield. In this
paper I will examine three objections to Okin before mounting a defense of Okins position that the
advancement of liberal goals requires rejecting group rights.
The Multiculturalist Case for Group Rights
Some multiculturalists claim that minority groups ought to be given Group Rights. Group Rights
are special privileges that come in various forms, e.g. exemption from regular laws and the provision of
special accommodations (Song 3), and may be granted to particular minority groups within a society.
These rights are seen as necessary for the preservation of those groups, which is deemed desirable
because it is conducive to their freedom to choose their own conception of the good life (4).
Multiculturalist Will Kymlicka claims that this goal is supported by John Rawls's idea that lifes primary
goods must be accessible to individuals (Multicultural Citizenship 83). Group rights protect the goods of
self-esteem and identity by offering a diverse variety of cultural structures, each of which represents a
unique conception of the good life. For example, an intentional community might be given an exemption
from having to send their children to a public school since their way of life prohibits exposure to certain
teachings or even general contact with nonmembers. Because the groups isolation is an essential part of
its culture, its preservation demands the special right of exemption from compulsory public schooling.
Without these rights these individuals would be stripped of their ability to exercise their autonomy to
choose and pursue their conception of the good life. Kymlicka states that the proper end of group rights is
to empower members of minority groups to continue their distinctive practices if they wish to
(Multicultural Citizenship 103). The good of autonomous choice warrants preservation of cultures, which

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in turn warrants group rights.


Okins Feminist Opposition
For Okin, a problem arises when there are internal restrictions within the groups in question.
According to Kymlicka, internal restrictions are practices within a cultural group that are illiberal in
nature and used by members to oppress other members (Contemporary Political Philosophy 341). For
example, suppose a group that has won exemption from public education is sexist and inculcates in their
children a worldview which considers women naturally inferior? This would clearly go against the liberal
principle of equality as the women in that group would not be treated as equals. It also undermines
autonomy since the girls growing up in that group would never have the opportunity to learn anything
beyond the idea that they are naturally subordinate and duty-bound to conform to discriminatory gender
roles. How could they be considered to be making any meaningful choices over whether to abide by such
a tradition if they are ignorant of alternative views and immersed in such all-encompassing influences?
Kymlicka calls these groups closed cultures or groups (Liberalism, Community, and Culture 98). Okin
argues that because of the violations of autonomy and equality perpetrated by closed groups, even if they
are in the name of personal identity, she can see no justification, on liberal grounds, for this at all
(675).
While this consideration would disqualify closed groups for group rights, Okin goes further and
says that even a group that is formally liberal can undermine autonomy and equality by illiberal practices
in the private sphere.1 She notes that within such groups, Female members are devalued and imbibe their
sense of inferiority virtually from birth (675). Discrimination in the private sphere effectively imposes
internal restrictions. So even if the young girls are allowed public schooling, if its cultural traditions
constrain the positive liberty of members, e.g. through informal discrimination and domestic coercion, the
group is effectively closed. Enforcement of formal liberal policies does not alleviate these kinds of
discrimination which are often far less overt than their formal counterparts (679). And since virtually all
groups have internal restrictions either formally or informally, Okin argues that all groups are de facto
disqualified for group rights. Against Kymlickas proposal to extend group rights to formally open (nonclosed) groups, Okin claims that virtually no culture in the world today could pass his no sex
discrimination test if it were applied in the private sphere (679). Thus even extending rights only to
1 A group is formally liberal only if it adheres to public liberal policies, that is, it complies with regular laws
in a liberal state. A group that rejected the regular law of compulsory public schooling is formally illiberal;
this contrasts with being informal illiberal in the private sphere as opposed to the public sphere.
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groups that are formally open has the effect of perpetuating illiberal practices. She also claims that this is
a feminist issue in particular because the groups in question are de facto patriarchal. Whenever liberal
principles clash with claims about cultural rights it almost always has to do with gender discrimination,
and thus the issue is likely to have much more impact on the lives of women and girls than on those of
men and boys (667). She suggests that for liberalism a better solution than group rights would be to
allow such groups to assimilate naturally or even go extinct without the support of such rights (684).
Three Objections to Okin
One objection is that Okin's prioritization of individual rights seems to overlook the importance
of cultural groups to the ultimate detriment of individual rights themselves. Ideally, its desirable for
everyone to enjoy their rights as much as possible but the best option may be the lesser evil. One might
dispute Okins claim that the liberal value of autonomy is best preserved by altogether denying group
rights. If the denial of group rights would lead to the extinction of these groups, preserving these groups
might justify their internal restrictions as harms necessary for maximizing overall autonomy. Then the
two options are state where such groups have gone extinct or a state with internally restrictive groups.
While Okin thinks that the former is better, one might argue that the latter is actually more conducive to
autonomy: in a homogenous society without minority groups, there is no culture but the majority culture
so individuals growing up in such a state would have no real choice but to identify with the majority
culture. In order to make meaningful choices and thus have real autonomy, however, we need a context
of choices the ability to consider, choose among, and pursue different cultural options (Song 9). As
Kymlicka says, Freedom involves making choices amongst various options, and our societal culture not
only provides these options, but also makes them meaningful to us (Multicultural Citizenship 83).
Without cultural groups and the opportunity to partake in them we are, according to Jeff Spinner-Halev,
adrift in this world (91). Thus multiculturalists like Ayelet Shachar claim that since both groups and
individual rights are legitimate ends, its wrong to just pick the one extreme of denying group rights
altogether (217).2
A second objection comes from Spinner-Halev who claims in what is known as his Oppressed
History Argument that a group's history of oppression can qualify it for group rights. Oppressed groups
are minority groups where the members' individual rights have been violated by the state (86). He claims
2 Shachar suggests that we instead pursue a joint governance model which purportedly achieves the correct
balance by allowing only some group rights while withholding others, e.g. allowing divorce laws to be
under group jurisdiction while leaving inheritance laws to state jurisdiction (221).
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that when such a group has internal restrictions that conflict with liberal policies, denial of group rights
constitutes imposing a sort of reform (94). While a state may impose reform on some minority groups and
deny them group rights, a history of oppression exempts oppressed groups from state-imposed reform.
Because they deserve group rights, Bitter opposition of tribal groups to cooperating with the former
oppressor when it comes to reform is understandable and justified (94).
Spinner-Halev gives two arguments for extending group rights to oppressed groups, an argument
from justice and a consequentialist argument. According to the first, because the group had previously
been oppressed by the state, the state cannot now justifiably impose reform on the group as this assumes
that the state is benevolent and that such reforms would be beneficial to the group members. But this
presumption is made implausible by the fact that the same agent had oppressed that group in the past. He
claims that, even if we are acting with good intentions, To say that today we are now confident that the
US will treat indigenous peoples with the respect they deserve is to ignore how the state actually acts
(94). Spinner-Halev considers the example of the history of Native American tribes. How can the U.S.
government assume the authority to impose its laws on them against the background of the terrible
oppression it had dealt them? These tribes, Spinner-Halev maintains, have legitimate claims to the group
rights such as self-governance, that is, legal jurisdiction separate from the state's.
Spinner-Halevs argument from consequences states that imposing liberal reform will ultimately
render individual rights of group members less secure. He appeals to historical examples where
interference with such groups often led to violent rebellion against the state and despondency for
members of the group (95). Because these groups are oppressed, their past oppressor's interference will
cause them to suffer alienation and to feel powerless, leading to problems such as low educational
achievement, violence and high suicide rates (95). Its hard to see how liberal goals are being achieved in
such a ruined environment. Thus denial of group rights to oppressed groups is unjust in the first place and
ultimately counterproductive.
The third objection attacks the relevance of Okins argument to multiculturalism, focusing on her
appeal to discrimination in the private sphere. This argument disputes Okins claim that group rights
produces tension between multiculturalism and feminism. Instead Okin seems to merely be critiquing the
public-private dichotomy instead of multiculturalism itself. Okin claims that the groups in question
practice private discrimination but private discrimination isnt the exclusive preserve of minority groups,
and the private sphere is generally left outside the scope of public policy whatever the group, whether
minority and majority. Spinner-Halev points out that Multicultural theorists do not simply allow
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immigrant groups to discriminate against their daughters. Rather, with a standard liberal view of the
private sphere, Kymlicka and others allow all families [...] to do the same (89). Whether the private
sphere should subject to public justice, whether we should maintain a public-private dichotomy, is an
issue within liberalism in general and doesnt reveal an incompatibility between feminist goals and
multiculturalist goals specifically. Indeed, if Okin is right and the area of private injustice should be
subject to public policy, then we would have to enforce liberal principles within all families, after which
the question of group rights may still remain.3 So the objection is that Okins claim that multiculturalism
conflicts with feminism misses the point that this is a problem for liberalism in general.
Responses to the Objections
The first objection that group rights are the lesser evil may seem plausible initially. After all, if
both a context of choice and individual rights are conducive to exercising the liberal principle of
autonomy but are in conflict, choosing a balance between the two may be better than choosing one
extreme or the other. This argument, however, incorrectly assumes that we must settle for a balance
between these two goods and that the full pursuit of both isnt possible. We dont have to sacrifice the
context of choice as a whole in order to protect individual rights. We must reject the assumption that
without group rights society will somehow eventually turn into one boring homogeneous blob. After all
we can still foster a diversity of cultures by providing cultural materials instead of by privileging cultural
structures. Cultural materials are resources that allow people to learn about cultures and live them
collectively (Waldron 110). For example, we provide cultural material by giving non-English language
courses in public schools, allowing cultural groups use of public facilities and areas, and by providing
freedoms of expression and religion where they dont conflict with basic liberal principles. All of these
are achievable and for the most part are achieved in the U.S. without resorting to group rights. Currentlyexisting cultural structures arent ultimately valuable especially if they conflict with liberal values. It is
cultural materials that are the neutral building-blocks of cultural diversity. The provision of these
materials would allow new cultures to emerge and existing minority cultures to sustain themselves (as
long as they dont conflict with liberal values). If a culture's internal restrictions conflict with normal
liberal laws, it would have to reform and adapt. Thus the community would have to affirm the
3 A state could subject the private sphere to public justice while still upholding group rights. Equally, a state
could do the same while rejecting group rights. The question of group rights is a question whether we
should give special exemptions and privileges, whether only in the public sphere or also in the private
sphere.
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fundamental liberal principle of autonomy, for instance by providing public education to their children.
Indeed, allowing groups to resist reform may actually subvert the goal of protecting a genuine context of
choice as it runs the risk of privileging one allegedly pure version of that culture, thereby crippling its
ability to adapt to changes in circumstances (Song 9). Thus a context of choice is protected without
group rights and is even best protected thereby.
The worry concerning the context of choice may still remain, however, if the exemption from
public schooling is essential to the survival of a group. Many of the defenses of culture employed in
criminal law courtrooms for cases involving such practices as polygamy and arranged marriages appeal to
this claim. (Song 14). I argue that in such cases liberalism should reject group rights and leave the group
either to radically reform or to use Okins words go extinct. At the price of making illiberal groups
face this conflict we uphold individual autonomy without losing the context of choice. Indeed, the
majority culture which sets the general standard of liberal conventions is itself comprised of numerous
subcultures that make it diverse. The American South has different cultures from the West, the West has
different cultures from the East and so on, while all of them are uniformly subject to federal law. Also,
reform doesnt seem to be much of a detriment to diversity as it appears that many immigrant families in
the U.S. still retain their cultural distinctiveness even after some degree of assimilation, thus avoiding
extinction despite reform. Furthermore, if we are to make exemptions from the law for every individual
claiming the cultural defense, we would effectively be endorsing a relativism where the legality of an
action is contingent on an individuals values; to take an extreme case, a child-abuser could enjoy
impunity as long as the abuse is claimed to be essential to cultural identity. What principle disqualifies
this as part of a unique conception of the good life while permitting forced marriage? Ultimately, when
we can afford both individual rights and a context of choice, we ought to prefer them over group rights.
My response to the second objection, Spinner-Halevs history of oppression argument, is twofold.
For the first part, Spinner-Halev misses the point when he claims that it is unjust for a state to impose
reform on a group which it had previously oppressed. If oppressed groups (or rather previously oppressed
groups) have a claim of damage against the state, then this becomes a matter of compensatory justice, not
multiculturalism. It would indeed be unfair for the U.S. to impose its laws on Native American tribes
which have been terribly oppressed in the past, without also providing due compensation just as it would
be unfair for a state to order a falsely accused citizen to serve a prison sentence when it is obvious that the
accused has been framed by the government. Here, the unlucky citizen is clearly justified in refusing to
serve the prison sentence. In both cases, an injustice against the oppressed has been perpetrated, therefore
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the oppressed has no obligation to comply with the system of justice when the perpetrators themselves
control the system. However, if the injustice is remedied, for instance, the tribes are compensated and the
falsely accused is acquitted, then no legitimate claim against legal compliance can be made. As such the
question whether Spinner-Halevs oppressed groups have a claim to exemption from the law is a matter
compensatory justice. And even if such a claim applies, it wouldnt be a matter of group rights so much as
a matter of a right to resist injustice. If a wrongfully imprisoned man were later exonerated and given
compensation, there would be no ground on which he can claim impunity from the states laws because of
the states past oppression of him. Thus Spinner-Halevs argument about justice for oppressed groups is
irrelevant to the issue of group rights and fails to undermine Okins position.
The second part of Spinner-Halevs history of oppression argument, the argument from
consequences, fares no better than the first. Aside from the seeming exaggeration in his claim that
imposing reform would lead to results that are clear, well known, and absolutely disastrous (95), his
reasoning about the historical evidence is flawed. Taking the example of forced assimilation of Native
American culture, he claims that high suicide rates, low educational achievement and other signs of
societal ruin are to-be-expected outcomes of imposing liberal reform on any oppressed group. This
example, however, does not support group rights. Forced assimilation in the name of reforms was itself
an act of oppression and was not consistent with liberal principles. Considering the nature of these
reforms, its no wonder these Native American tribes suffered. Denial of group rights is a
fundamentally different kind of reform. Enforcing laws of nondiscrimination can hardly be compared
with the U.S.s past oppressive actions against Native American tribes. Furthermore, Spinner-Halev
maintains that since the U.S. government claimed good intentions in the past all the while oppressing
Native Americans, we cannot say that today we are now confident that the US will treat indigenous
peoples with the respect they deserve (Spinner-Halev 94). This line of argument leads to the
unacceptable implication of an extreme moral skepticism as it would be an admission that if weve been
wrong in the past we can never presume to be right again.
Finally, according to the third objection Okins critique of multiculturalism and group rights is
really a critique of liberalism in general, since under traditional liberalism the private sphere is protected
from public encroachment not only for minority groups but for all groups. Okin herself admits that
virtually no culture in the world today, whether minority or majority is free of private discrimination
(679). There is, however, a case to be made for Okins claim that theres a conflict specifically between
multicultural goals and feminist goals.
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As mentioned earlier, traditional liberalism is the basis for both feminism and multiculturalism
but the multiculturalism of group rights pulls it to one side while Okins feminism pulls it to the opposing
side: if minority cultures are granted group rights that preserve their illiberal practices, feminists would
see a loss of ground for their principal value of equality for women. As Okin says, group rights invariably
preserve a more patriarchal minority culture in the context of a less patriarchal majority culture (680).
The choice between granting and denying group rights is a choice between reinforcing and not reinforcing
private discrimination against women because the majority culture is the most liberal one. Thus, if group
rights prevent less liberal cultures from integrating more liberal principles, the result is greater
discrimination against women. Its granted that minority cultures arent the only groups that have
elaborate patterns of socialization, rituals, matrimonial customs, and other cultural practices aimed at
bringing women's sexuality and reproductive capabilities under men's control, which make it virtually
impossible for women to choose to live independently of men, to be celibate or lesbian, or to decide not to
have children (Song 23). The key point, however, is that they lean further toward these practices which
liberalism aims to mitigate as much as possible.
Thus for feminists the question of group rights is de facto a question of more, or less, private
discrimination on the whole, specifically against women. The feminist sees the best choice for the
individual rights of women clearly lies with a majority culture which is the most liberal alternative, while
group rights lean toward sanctioning more private injustice. This is what justifies Okins claim that there
is a unique tension specifically between feminism and multiculturalism, and that it is not merely a general
problem within liberalism.
Conclusion
Okins critique of multiculturalism illuminates the difficulties posed by group rights and tensions
within liberalism's ideals of autonomy and equality. Ultimately, the solution which best upholds
individual rights rejects group rights. Furthermore, group rights are a real threat to the liberal interests of
women.
However, we cannot overlook the special contribution that cultural groups make to the goal of
enabling individuals to choose their own conceptions of the good life. We must explore ways to provide
cultural materials that sustain an adequate context of choice, how best to facilitate reform in the culture of
oppressed groups and the ultimate question how best to advance the liberal rights of individuals.

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Okin, Susan M. Feminism and Multiculturalism: Some Tensions. Ethics 108.4 (1998): 661-684. 11 Jan.
2014.
Ruth, Abbey. Return of Feminist Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Shachar, Ayelet. Should Church and State be Joined at the Altar? Womens Rights and the Multicultural
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Song, Sarah. Multiculturalism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010): 11 Jan. 2014.
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Waldron, Jeremy. Minority Cultures and the Cosmopolitan Alternative. The Rights of Minority
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