Mara Marin, The Diverse Uses of the Metaphor of Commitment in Connected by Commitment: Bonds of Love, Labor and Collective Action [2018 C4eJ 5] (Book Forum)

[read the rest of the Symposium on Mara Marin, Connected by Commitment: Oppression and Our Responsibility to Undermine It (2017)]

Mara Marin*

I want to start by thanking Markus Dubber, the Director of the Centre for Ethics, for having the idea for this symposium on my book and for doing all the work of organizing. I am also very grateful to the participants in this symposium: Shannon Dea, Meredith Schwartz, Torrey Shanks and Kerry Rittich, for generously agreeing to take part in this conversation, for taking the time to read the book, and for their comments. I wrote the final substantive revisions here at the Centre for Ethics, and I am particularly thankful to Peggy Kohn, the director at the time, for welcoming me at the Centre and for our conversations on the value of different types of labor, conversations that were the background of my revisions to Chapter Five. And I am extremely grateful to Jenny Nedelsky, who has helped this book come into being in more ways than I can count.

The book makes a set of descriptive claims and a set of normative claims about social, structural, oppression. The symposium participants do a great job at reconstructing many of these claims. So instead of reconstructing the main claims of the book, I want to focus on some of its descriptive claims.

The book argues that at the root of oppressive social practices lies our basic human sociability. What makes oppression possible, on this view, is a condition that we cannot get rid of and cannot want to get rid of. By human sociability I mean the basic fact that humans are social beings, which is to say that they cannot live as human beings, cannot develop the practices they do without or in separation from other human beings. For instance, we cannot function without being cared for by other human beings. Even able-bodied, healthy adults need other adults to provide some care for them. Chapter Four discusses this care-related aspect of our sociability. We also cannot live without shared practices of laws. In Chapter Three I argue that laws are social practices through which we manage conflicts over claims of justice.

I argue that this basic fact of human sociability means that human beings are in each other’s power. For this reason I call it “vulnerability.” We are vulnerable to other human beings – vulnerable to what they do and what they refuse to do, to what they can and what they cannot do.

I think that this basic fact is neither good nor bad. It is not a problem that needs to be overcome. It is a neutral fact about the human condition. It is compatible with both just and unjust social arrangements. However, if we are vulnerable to each other in this sense, then it is a mistake to think of the justice of social arrangements in terms of their ability to keep or make individuals independent of each other. Just social relations should not try to deny or minimize vulnerability. Rather, just social relations should be thought of as sharing the burdens and benefits of this kind of vulnerability in a fair way.

Developing this line of argument, I show that we should understand the oppressive character of social arrangements as a function of how they manage this vulnerability, as a function of who gets the benefits and who gets the burdens of this vulnerability. The “who” here is a social group rather than an individual. Or, more exactly, it refers to individuals as members of a social group. The burdens of sexist social practices, for example, go to individual women; that is, they go to individuals as members of the social group of women.

I make this argument by moving to a less general descriptive level where I discuss three social practices: intimate care, law and labor. Our vulnerability takes different forms in these three spheres.

For example, I analyze the social practice of care in North-American and Western European societies.  In Chapter Four I argue that a combination of norms about the value of work and care work, norms that separate care work from other types of work, and a quality of the activity of care that I call “flexibility” results in a social structure of intimate caregiving that creates two groups, caregivers and care receivers. These two groups stand in an oppressive social relation to each other. This relation is oppressive in the sense I defined above, in the sense that members of one group receive a disproportionate share of the burdens and members of another group receive a disproportionate share of the benefits of care.

In Chapter Three I make a similar argument about practices of law and their role in sustaining racial and gender oppressive structures. What is oppressive about laws is not primarily their discriminatory intent or content, but how, taken together as a system of law, they distribute this vulnerability in an unbalanced way between members of oppressed and privileged groups.


Turning to the comments of the symposium contributors, I would like to begin with Shannon Dea’s last question, which I read as follows: If we accept the book’s account, aren’t we giving up radicalism and revolution? In particular, if we accept that what matters about action is not the intention of the actors, but its local effects on structures, don’t we give up the power that comes from planning and coordinating large-scale change?

I think that this raises two questions: “What counts as radical, or revolutionary?” and “What counts as coordination?” Another way to put the first question is “What is our image of the revolutionary change? It is that of the protest on the streets, perhaps violent, that results in a change of government, maybe even a change of regime? Or is it the image of the girl who resists – maybe even quietly – the pressures of her family to conform to her traditional duties and roles, for instance the duty to serve her brother or father as preparation for serving her husband?”

I take Shannon Dea’s question to suggest that local actions can be part of revolutionary change only if they are united by a common goal, if they are coordinated to serve this common goal, or common intention to change structures. I think that the assumption here is that for coordination we need something that unites (coordinates) different local actions in the service of a larger action that is defined in relation to a unified intention. Without this intention – the intention that connects different local actions – the local changes might only amount to statistical noise; they might be local acts of resistance that do not disrupt the structure.

I grant that local acts of resistance might not disrupt the structure. But there is no guarantee that intentionally planned collective action, coordinated action in Shannon Dea’s sense, will disrupt structures either. I think that too often we forget that social reality does not conform to our intentions, that social change does not follow our intentions. This is one insight that “commitment” is meant to bring to the center of our attention.

The book proposes that we think of coordination and social change on a different model than that of the unifying intention. Let us go back to the example of the girl who resists doing what she is supposed to do. Actions are public, in the sense that they have a public meaning. The girl’s action can be taken up by others, can become a model for others who take its meaning as disruptive. This can happen irrespective of the girl’s intention. Her action can spark other disruptive actions even when she did not intend to challenge the larger traditional gender structures that assign her a particular role. In the same way in which Shannon Dea does not intend to reinforce gender binarism (but nevertheless does so) when using women’s bathroom, the girls who refuses to serve her brother may not intend to challenge traditional gender norms, but only to have her time to herself to read her book. But her action can give ideas and spark change in other local places. If this is coordination, then I am happy to speak of coordination. But action on this model is not controlled in advance of the action in the same way that talk of intention and coordination suggests. This is why the metaphor of action and response is, I think, better at capturing what happens in disruptive collective action. On this model, different actors, with different intentions, interpret each other’s actions, which take place in public, and assign it meaning in virtue of norms relevant to the context. They do this interpretative work by responding to each other’s actions. So the meaning of an action is not exhausted by the intentions of its actor. Rather, it is given by other agents who interpret the action through their responses to it; and different agents can give it different meanings. Thus, the meaning of an action is not controlled by the actor in the way in which intentions are. It is also not stable and it is not given in advance of action; it can change over time and it depends on the interpretation of the actors, interpretation given through action that responds to it, so it does not precede the action.

To address Shannon Dea’s question about the role of intentions, intentions are part of this story. Actors have various intentions, and some of these may be to disrupt oppressive structures. But these intentions do not exhaust the meaning of the action. They also do not fully explain the effects of the action on the structure: whether they succeed at bringing about change or, on the contrary, reinforcing the current structure.

This process of interpretation and taking others’ actions as models is cumulative, it extends over time. This is one of the reasons why I think we should think of collective action on this model of commitment, as one individual responding to the other. It is this give and take of action and response that unites their individual actions, not a shared intention. In the book I call this give-and-take of action and response “chains of action and response.”

I think this model of collective action as “chains of actions and responses” is also more democratic in the sense that it is more inclusive of differences. On this model, we start from local action, and that empowers members of different groups to affect the norms that affect them. Instead, the coordinated action could end up silencing local, differential interests. The girl in my previous example may not have the power to influence the formation of the coordinated plan, but she has some local power over what happens to her. If collective action is constituted over time in this way, as chains of responses to this local action, then it has an in-built capacity to integrate changes that respond to local needs. Another way to put this point is that the local action has a communicative function. And by integrating this local action, this model of collective action incorporates this communicative function.

I think that the anti-sexual-harassment movement that we are witnessing now has some of these features. The different women reporting their experiences have different intentions. But in reporting their experiences they change the public understanding around these issues, which in turn makes it easier for other women to report because they know they are more likely to be believed.


Turning to Meredith Schwartz’s comments, I want to start with the case of abusive relationships. Taking the personal relations first, I think that Meredith Schwartz is right, sometimes completely disengaging and acting as if obligations did not exist is the only way to save oneself and the right way to act. But this does not necessarily mean that there are no obligations in these cases. It may mean that other considerations, demands of self-preservation, override the obligations in this case. Saying that we have some obligations in a particular situation does not mean that all things considered we should act on what those obligations demand in that situation. It just means that we have to also consider these obligations, not act as if they do not exist.

But Meredith Schwartz might be right that once the relationship becomes abusive there are no obligations at all. Not only you have to leave in spite of the pull of your obligations, there is no pull there. Far from being a problem for my account, I think that this example shows why my account is useful. Abuse cannot be identified simply by looking at the beginning of a relationship; to identify abuse one has to look at the quality of the long-term interaction. In abusive relationships there is no pull of obligations precisely because the give and take of action and response does not exist (or no longer exists). Abuse is the opposite of chains of actions and response. Abuse breaks the chain. I do not have an obligation to respond in an open-ended way when there is no open-ended action to respond to.

To be fair to Meredith Schwartz’s question, she suggested that the problem is at the political level. My account would imply that a group that has been systematically treated badly has no obligation to continue a political relationship. On my account African-Americans, or women, would have no obligations to continue the relationship to white Americans, or men, unless it were reformed. I see no problem with this implication. Indeed, I think that African-Americans are under no obligation to continue a relationship that has been and continues to be abusive to them. But that – to reiterate my earlier point about abuse – only shows why my account is useful. Their relations to the American society are oppressive precisely because their actions (including their labor) have not been responded in an open-ended way; they have not been engaged as the actions of an equal involved in a relationship of mutuality. The responses received by their actions have interpreted these actions not as actions that are owed a response that would build a relationship of mutual respect. Rather, the responses their actions have received have denied the mutual relationship of vulnerability in which they stand with the rest of the American society. Slavery is a clear example of a violation of this kind, as is Jim Crow as a legal and social regime. But so is the continuing police brutality African-Americans experience, the low quality of urban black neighborhoods and of the schools, segregation, etc.

While I am comfortable with the implication that oppressed groups do not have an obligation to continue a relationship that has been abusive to them, I also think that they have a right to continue that relationships. African-Americans are Americans, as a significant tradition of African-American political thought argues, and as such they have a right to continue to be what they are, American. They have a right to continue their relationship to the rest of the American society. And this right implies a right to have that relationship reformed, which means that their actions in the relationship (including their demands for reform) have to be responded in a way that turns that relationship into a balanced, equal one.

The next question Meredith Schwartz asks is about relations between parents and children, and whether these relationships can be commitments. As Meredith Schwartz noted, commitment as I develop it in this book is an account of reciprocal relations, and therefore it refers only to relations between adults (or between persons able to respond in an open-ended way and able to live the consequences of this type of action, which may include older children). I think that parent-child relations can become commitments of this type when the children become adults. But for that to happen the adults have to treat the relationship as one of open-ended obligations. This may or may not happen. So I do not think that all parent-child relationships become commitments in this sense even once the child becomes an adult.


This brings me to what I do in Chapter One and allows me to address Torrey Shanks’s comments and further address Meredith Schwartz’s questions.

There is a criticism of my claim that we should understand political relations as relations of commitment that says that this move is conservative. I argue that we should adopt a family model for understanding political relations, that we should understand political and social relations as family relations, and that can only have conservative implications. The family, or marriage, as Torrey Shanks points out, is one of our most flawed and gendered ways for binding ourselves. How can I claim an egalitarian, radical potential out of this form?

My answer is that the notion of “commitment” allows me to do that. By calling both of these spheres of human interaction “commitments” I also criticize the family model. I reform our understanding of the family. Typically the family is understood as a sphere without conflict and without claims of justice; the family is the site of bonds of love. Against this view, my notion of “commitment” argues that bonds of love create and are created by bonds of claims, of obligation. It argues that intimate relationships are governed by norms that, like any other norms, are ways of solving conflict, of settling competing claims. So the book does argue that our social and political relations should be understood more like our family relationships, like our personal relationships, but only if we understand these personal relationships more like what we typically take to be political relations, which is to say if we understand them as ridden by conflict and governed by norms meant to settle those conflicts.

This, Torrey Shanks argues, puts me in a long tradition of taking concepts that first make sense of more intimate settings and import them into political settings. This style of argument is constituted by two moves, the first of which is to reimagine family relationships. This first move is not always obvious, so Torrey Shanks draws our attention to Locke’s discussion of Eve as wife and mother and his arguments against the absolute authority of fathers over their children, the prevailing understanding of the family in Locke’s time. Similarly, by arguing that spousal relations are commitments, I argue against an understanding of the family prevalent among political theorists. I do so by interpreting our practices in intimate relationships and rearranging our intuitions about our intimate relations, which enable me to draw on these practices in new ways for our understanding of political relations and their transformation. I am delighted that Torrey Shanks sees these connections, and I am understandably flattered by having my work placed in the same tradition as Locke, Pateman and Charles Mills.

In addition, I also think that this methodological clarification helps me address Meredith Schwartz’s last worries about how to move back and forth between the personal and structural case. I think that Torrey Shanks picks up precisely on the discomfort that Meredith Schwartz reports when Meredith Schwartz says that she finds herself “a bit lost when thinking about the personal relationships and structural relations they give rise to.” It is unclear, Meredith Schwartz says, whether the examples are meant to be impersonal or personal. It is unclear whether the care is given in direct or indirect ways. I think that Torrey Shanks makes the case that this discomfort promises a new way of understanding the relation between public and private (between social and personal) – new even to other feminist and democratic modes of thought – and that this new way of understanding and experiencing the relation between public and private can “make social and legal structure and their transformation thinkable in new ways.” In other words, we may not always know for sure the answer to Meredith Schwartz’s questions, but that is a good thing because it opens up possibilities for political claims. Or, to put the point somewhat differently, it is a good thing because as long as the answers to Meredith Schwartz’s questions are not given, we are free to make a wide range of political arguments; a whole range of political claims are still possible. By thinking of the public, social issues of oppression in relation to the everyday practices we are involved in, we can draw different sorts of connections between the personal and the political in order to make different political claims.


Kerry Rittich’s comments about my method also allow me to shed some light on this issue. She sees my book as conceiving of “structures as fluid – as made up of the cumulation of individual actions that are encoded in institutions and that are to some degree the result of decisions for which we must take responsibility” and in this respect as resonating “with many ‘dereification’ moves central to the Realist and critical traditions in legal analysis.” This way of thinking of structures also explains why I think that we do not need to know the precise answer to Meredith Schwartz’s questions about who exactly benefits from whose work of care in order to accept the more general point that the social relation between caregivers and receivers of care is sustained – and potentially undermined – by every activity of care.

Kerry Rittich’s comments very helpfully illuminate for me connections between my work and other areas of research and other theoretical approaches, and I am very thankful to her for pointing out these connections. To the degree to which I detect any criticisms, I think I can see two criticisms. One is about social contract theory and one is about marriage law reform.

I read Kerry Rittich to say that the social contract theory is the wrong place for me to start my analysis of the law because it creates unnecessarily steep theoretical hurdles for me to jump over when arguing that our vulnerability continues even under the law. American Realist and post-Realist traditions would be a more natural starting point for that argument because they are friendlier to my conclusions. But it seems to me that starting from the theory that is less friendly to my conclusions, that imposes steeper hurdles to it, makes my argument stronger. If I can show that, even when starting from the premises of the social contract theory, the invulnerability promised by the social contract cannot be delivered, that this invulnerability is incompatible with other things we have to accept on the social contract account (with those things that I refer to as “judgment”), then we have a stronger argument against that “official story” of protection delivered by law, and the argument is stronger precisely because the hurdles the argument had to overcome were higher. Kerry Rittich says that were I to consider the picture of the law given by realist and post-realist traditions, I would see that our vulnerability to each other is not only something that laws protect us from, but also something that laws create. This is because “’protection’ is only one subset of the things that law does in practice: law allocates powers, risks, costs, rewards and responsibilities; it provides incentives and structures behaviour, hovering in the background influencing private choices; and it interacts with social and customary norms – … racial and gender norms … – both undermining and reinforcing them in a range of competing and conflicting ways.” This may turn out to be a disciplinary terminological difference between Kerry Rittich and myself, but I think we are in agreement on the substance here. For these latter sorts of things that laws do – allocating powers, risks, costs, interacting with social norms etc. – are exactly the type of things that I refer to in the examples that I bring when I argue that laws do not “protect” (in my sense of “protect,” of creating a social vulnerability) different social groups equally (p. 83-86). Laws fail to equally protect different social groups in the process of their allocating powers, risks or costs in ways that often reinforce (but can also undermine) the social hierarchies between groups. So while I make the argument starting from the premises of the social contract theory, I do not accept the conclusions of the social contract theory. On the contrary, I show that the claim made by social contract theorists that vulnerability disappears once we leave the state of nature is untenable. I argue that this vulnerability resurfaces in the processes through which laws are instituted, interpreted and enforced. In Kerry Rittich’s words, that laws themselves are “one of the mechanisms by which our vulnerability to each other is itself constructed.” This being said, I can see how a more concrete analysis of how particular laws construct the vulnerability I have in mind would have been useful in more vividly illustrating my argument.

On my proposed marriage law reform, I read Kerry Rittich to say that marriage law is the wrong legal framework to address the unequal work of care (and the oppressive relation between caregivers and care receivers) because the marriage rules support the binary form, which is at the root of the hierarchical relations of care. Instead, Kerry Rittich says, it may be appropriate to limit commitment in some contexts, provide ways to exit relationships, and diversify the forms of intimate relationships recognized as providing care beyond that of the nuclear family.

I completely agree with Kerry Rittich on all these points but I think that my proposal of marriage as commitment allows for these modifications to the rules of marriage. By “marriage” I do not mean a couple. Commitments – even intimate, caring relationships – can be between more than two people. I may not made this feature explicit enough in the chapter on marriage, but part of what recommends commitment as the model on which we should reform marriage law is the fact that it does not specify the number of people involved in a relationship. All it requires is that there be an open-ended interaction between those involved in the relationship, and I think that this notion of open-ended “interaction” or “chains of action and response” captures well the activity of care between adults in care relationships. So commitment has an in-built capacity to recognize the diversity of relationships, beyond the marital couple, as long as they are caring relationships. On this point – that caring relationships come in many forms, and that a marriage law has to recognize all of these forms – I agree with Elizabeth Brake, who is otherwise one of the targets of my criticism in the marriage chapter. Commitment also allows for exit, while also having the ability to ground provisions for obligations owed to those with whom we used to have – but no longer have – a relationship. These “post-relationships obligations” last for a time; that is, commitments can be thought of as fading over time.

Finally, Kerry Rittich says that “there is a powerful case for both expanding and diffusing the performance of care obligations beyond the nuclear family. In addition to the argument that forms of care relations beyond that of the nuclear family should be recognized, I read this as an argument for a larger share of public responsibility for care. Marriage law, then, is an unsatisfactory tool to address these problems because it privatizes responsibilities for care. I discussed a form of this objection in Chapter Four of the book (pp. 120-122). Here I would like to say that I agree that marriage law reform in the form I argued for is not sufficient for full equality; it is only necessary. However, I think that it is necessary, because marriage is an institution through which the work of care is made invisible and the lack of responses to the work of care is justified. I think the objection would have more bite if the marriage law reform I proposed only justified transfers within a relationship of care instead of between the larger public and caregivers. But my analysis opens up the way to arguments that link one’s status as a caregiver in a relationship to entitlements for one that one can exercise against public institutions, not only against her intimate partners.

* * *

Besides being a diverse set of thoughtful comments that engage with the details of my arguments while pointing out their larger stakes, these four sets of comments have achieved what I hoped for but did not think was still possible: to see new ideas in my book. I am humbled by the generosity of their authors and grateful for their intellectual labors.

* Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Victoria University (as of July 1, 2018).


Marin, M. G. (2017). Connected by Commitment: Oppression and Our Responsibility to Undermine it. Oxford University Press.