Shannon Dea: “Social Metaphysics and Normativity in Mara Marin’s Connected by Commitment,” 2018 C4eJ 1

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

Shannon Dea*

The main claim of Mara Marin’s Connected by Commitment is “that social relations should… be understood as commitments and that our obligations to transform oppressive social relations have a structure similar to that of the obligations of commitment” (45).

Marin follows Marilyn Frye in characterizing as oppressive those situations in which the people who are affected (the oppressed) are at a disadvantage no matter what they do. That is, to be oppressed is not merely to have restricted choices. Women in the workplace, for example, are penalized both for having children and for not having children. There is no available course of action that allows them to avoid the penalty. Oppression, writes Marin, “is a macroscopic phenomenon. When change affects only one part of this macroscopic phenomenon, the overall outcome can remain (almost) the same if the other parts rearrange themselves to reconstitute the original systematic relation” (6). When, as individuals, we consider how to drive large-scale social change in order to end oppression, the intractability of oppression can lead us into a “circle of helplessness and denial” (7). Marin argues that by understanding social relations as commitments, we can break the cycle.

Marin introduces the concept of commitment by way of an analogy with marriage. A partner who decides to leave a marital relationship because she “never agreed” to her spouse’s unanticipated disability is not merely breaking a promise or a contract, says Marin, because a marriage is more than promise or a contract. It is rather a relationship, one that that develops “over time through the accumulated effect of open-ended actions and responses” (25). This kind of relationship Marin terms a commitment.

Marin argues that we should see the complex ways in which we are connected in the social (and notably, the political) world as similar to the commitments at the heart of marriage and friendship. As social beings, we are vulnerable; we have a mutual need for one another. Marin argues that human beings’ intrinsic vulnerability is denied and devalued by current social structures, which denial is connected to feelings of powerlessness in the face of oppressive structures. By acknowledging our shared vulnerability, we can begin to acknowledge our relationship of commitment, and thereby come to understand the role we play in those structures.

Marin charges that most political theory is at once too personal and insufficiently personal. It is too personal in the way that it centers on individuals within the polis rather than on social structures (and structural causes). But it is insufficiently personal in its inattention to personal life (including, but not limited to intimate relationships) as a political site (in the sense of the familiar feminist mantra “the personal is political”). She urges that recentering political theory on the notion of commitment allows us to attend at once to individual action, its links to collective action, and the structure that it can affect, with appropriate emphasis.

As individuals, argues Marin, we create social structures cumulatively through the continuous intertwinement of our actions with those structures. Those actions need not be intentional. When I use the women’s bathroom, I am not necessarily choosing to reinforce gender binarism. Nonetheless, whether intentional or not, my use of the women’s bathroom does reinforce dominant gender structures. Since some of the most serious forms of injustice are structural, and since we reinforce structures through our actions irrespective of whether we intend to do so, Marin argues that political theorists concerned with injustice ought not to overemphasize intention.  For Marin, structures are created cumulatively, and can therefore be changed cumulatively. Recognizing our connection by commitment with other persons allows us to conceive long-term joint actions that affect social structures.

I loved Connected by Commitment. It seems to me that Marin gets the social metaphysics and the moral psychology – which is to say, the descriptive side of things – exactly right. I follow Marin in seeing human beings as fundamentally dependent and interdependent, as constructing the social world through their actions, and as very often doing so behind their own backs – unintentionally and sometimes even unconsciously. And I agree with Marin that structural causes are the most important ones for social justice projects to reckon with.

Further, the picture of social reality that Marin constructs strikes me as a really useful alternative to the ideal/non-ideal theory dyad. As is well known, on Rawls’s view, ideal theory applies to states constructed for the mutual benefit of members, and non-ideal theory applies in those pathological cases in which states aren’t constructed for the mutual benefit of members. Of course, both notions hang on the conception of the framers of states as organizing themselves around intentions and projects. Marin offers a more biological and less architectural origin story for social structures. Social structures evolve, as relationships do, in our cumulative interactions with one another. Some of those interactions are symmetrical; some are asymmetrical. Many (or most) of them are not intended to support particular projects. Oppressive social structures are not special cases that require a special kind of theorizing. They emerge in the same ways that non-oppressive social structures do, and can be changed in the same ways too – just as they were formed, through cumulative actions.

This brings us to the normative side of the project. Again, I think the Marin gets the normative side right, in general. However, I am still struggling with some of the “local” details. I want to conclude my remarks by suggesting two areas where I would like to hear more about what Marin has in mind.

  1. Small actions and the coordination problem

Throughout the volume, Marin argues that social structures must be changed through cumulative small actions. I think this is right, but I would like to hear more about how (or whether) we can coordinate such small actions over whole populations. Without coordination, such small actions could amount to little more than statistical noise, and indeed may, taken singly, be indiscernible from actions that support the status quo. Here is an example. Early in the volume, Marin describes the dilemma of whether or not a feminist mother should bake a cake with her daughter. On the hand, to do so seems to reinforce existing gender roles. However, argues Marin, by baking a cake with her daughter, a feminist can instead disrupt the values associated with traditional gender roles by conveying in her action the idea that “women’s work” is just as valuable as any other. I worry that to the onlooker there is in this case no discernible difference between an activity that reinforces the status quo and one that disrupts it. If this is right, then it is difficult to see small acts of resistance as very disruptive at all.

  1. Intention and disruption

The most obvious difference between the gender role reinforcing cake baking and the gender values disrupting cake baking is the intention of the baker. This leads me to my second worry. What exactly is the role of intention in social justice projects? Marin makes a convincing case that political theory should put less emphasis on intention, and in particular on the role of intentions in the construction of social structures. Our commitments are not constituted by intentions, and the norms associated with our commitments do not arise from intentions. This, it seems to me must hold for our social justice commitments, just as it does our other commitments. If so, then intention shouldn’t be part of the story that we use to discern status quo preserving actions from status quo disrupting actions.

This second worry seems to lead us to a final, larger question, and one that I would like to hear more about from Marin. Namely, given her deflationary descriptive account, is there still a place for radicalism and indeed for revolution in the realm of social justice?


* Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Waterloo.